Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Subjunctive mood... not long for this world?

I was asked about the subjunctive, which is used with statements that are "contrary to fact" (like "If I were you," because I am not you, as REM reminds us)-- is it still with us? Yes, it is, but maybe not for long.

Here's an example:
"He would have preferred that Richard was there with him."

The question was: Would you use "that Richard were there . . . "?

The most common time to use the subjunctive is after "if", but "prefer" and "wish" and similar "not true" words will call for the subjunctive. It's also used after verbs like "advise" and "suggest"--
"I suggest that he join the club."
In subjunctive, you use the verb part of the infinitive, that is, without the to-- (join, not to join).

With "to be", it's just "be," and that's the most common.

So "I'd advise that he be invited to join the club."

But when the statement is contrary to fact, you use the past tense, not the present tense:
So above, since Richard isn't there, I'd go with "were".
"He would have preferred that Richard was there with him."
This indicates that something isn't true-- it's preferred or wished, but it's not true.

So "If I were you," but "If I am right." (I -could- be right. It's been known to happen. But I know I am not you!)

However, the use of this seems to be dropping away. Language tends to move towards greater complexity, and then towards greater simplicity (especially when many people learn it AFTER childhood-- kids can learn any complexity because their brains are so malleable, but adult learners need the rules simplified). The subjunctive is complex and hard to explain (I know-- tried to teach it to a decade's worth of students :), and so it will probably disappear in the next generation. After all, it's generally clear when a statement is contrary to fact, so there doesn't actually HAVE to be a marker of it.

So use the subjunctive now, because it will likely be gone in a couple decades.

This is the sort of thing that, if you do it right, you're marking yourself as good at grammar. But if you do it wrong (if you use subjunctive with a true statement, for example), it's worse than not doing it at all. But this is another thing that an editor isn't likely to hold against you-- just something we expect to fix in the line edit or copy edit. So while I'm happy to explain this, I'd say, don't sweat it. It's not that big a deal. Take all those brain cells you might have devoted to the subjunctive, and use them instead to recognize and fix dangling modifiers. :)

Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, btw, is a great book for explicating the changes in language.



Laura said...

I believe subjunctive mood will be here to stay, just some folks will ignore it.

And it will always bother me when they do -- it's part of my job as English prof and part-time editor to be annoyed by nerdy things like that.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

As someone who has cursed the subjunctive mood in more than one language, I can honestly say that should the subjunctive fall from use in English -- and I hope that it does not -- I shall be very sad indeed. Intricacies like this one are one of the things that make English, though complicated, interesting and beautiful. And, I do believe that it adds to the meaning of the sentence. So, though many may ignore the rule, I believe it is a good one, and it will be a sad thing for it to be dropped.

Edittorrent said...

I'm holding the line on the subjunctive, too. I correct errors in mood routinely, but I must admit, in character dialogue, I sometimes leave the errors. Educated people use the subjunctive in speech, so some characters also would use it. Sort of a judgment call.


Edittorrent said...

I just want to point out that most editors are not going to dismiss you utterly as a writer if you don't always get this right.

What's interesting to me is how we DO get it right, without actually knowing the rules precisely. I think human ability to absorb grammar rules is amazing.


Jenny said...

I read a book by a linguist a while back that explained that languages move towards greater simplicity as more geographically diverse people with different accents speak them to each other.

Case endings are among the first things to go when a language, like Latin, spreads. None of the Romance languages have preserved them.

Languages spoken by people who don't encounter strangers much (as in the Slavic heartland) preserve their complex case structures better.

I don't know if it is true, but it sounded logical to me.

Robin Lemke said...

I really love the subjunctive and hope we don't lose it. The language will be poorer for it.

These grammar related posts are my absolute favorite - thank you for them!