Sunday, September 19, 2010

Random thoughts on the Subjunctive

I once came across an article at, wondering why we bother to teach inversion. You can speak perfectly good English without ever using it, and it seems to give students a lot of headaches. But the certificate examination boards insist on it, so we have to teach it. You can read the article here. I have some sympathy for this point of view, and have a similar feeling about the Subjunctive.

Over the centuries the English language has got rid of Cases and linguistic Gender, and is in the process of freeing itself of the Subjunctive, but hasn’t quite managed it completely yet. Its use in modern English is very limited, and so I wonder why we bother teaching it at all.

If a native speaker has even heard of the Subjunctive, it is more likely to be in connection with Spanish or French than English, and I bet even TEFL / ESL / ELT teachers have to look it up, it’s just not something we think about or teach much.

As far as I can make out the Subjunctive has three main uses:

  1. In the ‘if’ clause of second conditional sentences - If I were you, I’d take a break now.
  2. In certain set expressions like - God bless America, Be that as it may
  3. In formal expressions after certain sorts of verbs with that - She insists that the report not be ignored. It is vital that you be present at the meeting 

For most students, all you will need is the first. You learn Second Conditional at Intermediate level or earlier, without even a mention of the Subjunctive, you are simply told that traditionally we use a plural form of the verb. But even that is changing, and apart from the fixed expression ‘If I were you’, younger people nowadays (in the UK at any rate) are probably more likely to use the singular form. Language books see as this as a perfectly correct alternative to the plural, you have a choice. 

In the second use, we can just learn the expressions, without needing to know their grammatical basis. Just as all native speakers know what e.g. and (some of them i.e.)  mean, but very few could tell you what the letters actually stand for.

And the third use is increasingly seen as excessively formal (at least in the UK), and is often avoided, by using should + infinitive for example - She insists that the report should not be ignored  or simply the indicative - It is vital that you are present at the meeting.

The use of the Subjunctive (or rather its avoidance) is another area where I think British English is rather more flexible than American English (see earlier post). For this third (formal) form is much more common in AmE, than BrE.

As far as me and the subjunctive are concerned, it’s good riddance, together with ‘whom’ and ‘may’ for permission.  When I was at school, if you asked ‘Please Sir, can I go to the toilet?’ the teacher would reply ‘I don’t know. Can you?’. Can was only for ability, we had to use may for permission! Now very few people use ‘may’ like this, and it can even sound strange. A living language moves on, and is none the worse for that.

But there are some traditionalists who mourn the passing of ‘whom’ and ‘may’ and the Subjunctive. There is even a Society for the Preservation of the Subjunctive in English, who have their own Facebook page (as far as I can see, that’s all they’ve got). They have ‘ the goal of reviving the now seemingly defunct grammatical mood that we have all come to love and respect’. That phrase seemingly defunct (that’s to say - apparently dead) says it all really.

You can learn more about the Subjunctive at, at and at English Grammar 4U. The first two have some exercises as well. There is also a very detailed explanation at Wikipedia, with a useful list of fixed expressions.

1 comment:

Peter Carter said...

The English subjunctive is not extinct; but it is in hiding. The trouble is that the present subjunctive looks exactly the same as the simple past tense, except for the verb 'to be' where we use the form 'I were, you were, he were' etc. We use the subjunctive with impossible or hypothetical conditions. "If I were a rich man..." means 'I am not a rich man but lets imagine for a minute that I am...'. 'If I am a rich man..' means something rather different - am I a rich man? have I just won the lottery? - it talks about something which may be true, not something which is hypothetical. Similarly, 'if I worked for two weeks' is a hypothetical condition; we are saying ; lets assume for the sake of argument that I work for two weeks'. 'If I work for two weeks..' however is not a hypothetical condition, but a real one.

I say more! English indirect speech uses the well known 'tense shift', where a present tense in direct speech becomes a past tense in indirect speech. Normally we explain to students that English makes the tense of the reported speech match the tense of the main verb ('said', 'explained' etc). However, historically I suspect that the tense shift is a subjunctive. Formal written German uses the subjunctive in reported speech, and maybe the Anglo-Saxons did so too.