Sunday, April 25, 2010

Alex Austin Asked: the Subjunctive

I asked the novelist Alex Austin what he'd like me to write about.  To my surprise, he said, "the subjunctive." That's an odd topic for an American to choose, I thought, but, then, Alex is an original, as you can tell by his novels.

Many English speakers,  including English professors, think English has no subjunctive left except in the phrase, "If I were..."  As English endings eroded during Middle English, the subjunctive endings also eroded.  Whoa! I can hear you saying, "What are you talking about?  What's a subjunctive?" If you are conscious of them at all, you recall them with horror from when you studied French, German, Latin, or some other European language.  Your language teacher probably told you there are no English counterparts to the subjunctive, which is why you might not understand them in another language.

Since the subjunctive expresses the idea that what the speaker is saying is not necessarily true, or won't necessarily happen, obviously English can express the subjunctive.  The phrase, "If I were you..." is subjunctive, because it is impossible for me to be you. The subjunctive lies in the use of were instead of the expected was.  That is, substituting the plural verb form  for the singular, is a way of expressing the subjunctive. We also see this in

  • The teacher prefers that John flunk the test
  • My mother commanded  that Jake come immediately
  • I asked that my lover call me every night, but he didn't.
  • I wish that she were here
Yes, I know there are more common paraphrases to each of these to express the subjunctive, but this usage, using  a plural verb with a singular subject still survives.  I find examples of it in magazines and on newscasts and in conversation all the time.  Like the European subjunctive, this English one follows verbs of indirect statement like commanding, ordering, promising, etc., and also verbs like prefer that suggest that what you prefer or wish isn't necessarily going to happen.

The problem with this subjunctive form is that English no longer has a singular and plural form of verbs (except for is, are, was, were) except in the 3d person present tense, so if you are speaking in the 1st or 2nd person, or in the past, you can't  indicate the subjunctive by using a plural verb for a singular.  That is, we have singular and plural agreement only in instances like

  • Jake comes/Jake and Max come
  • My lover calls/  My lovers call
Therefore the subjunctive using the plural form of the verb works primarily in the 3d person singular present.  However the verb be, which is a relic anyways does still have singular and plural agreement in both past and present, and also has agreement in the 1st person, "I am" and, even the archaic 2nd person singular, "thou art."  They don't figure in the subjunctive, however, but another relic of  be does: the old  subjunctive/infinitive form be itself, which still  gives us
  • I prefer that you be on time
  • The General commanded that the troops be ready at once.
  • I only ask that you be truthful
  • I insist that my lover be faithful
The subjunctive also appears in
  • Praise be the Lord
  • If this be treason, then so be it
My first husband, who came from rural Maine long before the old Maine accent disappeared, used to say, "If I be..." in the present tense.

Why don't people realize that these subjunctives still exist?  My students were always surprised when I pointed them out because they instantly recognized that they used them.  People are quite unaware of what grammar they're using when they speak.  They select grammar forms unconsciously as they're planning what they're going to say.

As for the pesky European subjunctives, you should know that, most often, where there used to be a subjunctive in older English, it was replaced by to+ verb in modern English and/or by the modal auxiliaries like should, would, might.  These were always used in the Germanic* languages to express the subjunctive message that what is being stated is not necessarily a fact, so they simply continued to be used when the subjunctive forms eroded.  Hence, we get to forms and  modals as subunctives:
  • My mother ordered Jake to clean his room
  • Miss Roberts preferred us to flunk her exams
  • I asked my lover to call
  • My husband asked if I would make lentil soup
One good trick for your foreign language classes is that if you can translate a sentence with English to+verb, you will use the subjunctive ending on the verb in the other European language.  Ditto with using should, would, or might.

Please comment on this post, favorably or not.  The next post is on what makes poetry poetic

*English is a Germanic language. It developed from *Proto Germanic which,over the centuries, turned into German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Yiddish.

Answering Requests

Two readers have specifically asked me to write on specific topics.  That was some weeks ago, but, alas! I have not been well and not able to write any posts..  I hope some of you  are still with me, because today I will respond to one request and by midweek, the other.

First, however, let me tell you how I found out about my illness.  As a sociolinguist, I can't help analyzing how someone tells you something and positing the deeper meaning, just as I can't help noticing people's accents when they speak, but that's another matter.


What happened was that I felt a suspicious lump, but didn't worry overmuch because I had a mammogram last July and it was normal. After a month, however, I noticed the lump had grown, so I went to my family doctor, expecting him to tell me I had a cyst.  I am very friendly with this doctor to the point where we first-name each other. When he felt the lump, he kept his head down and didn't look at my face as he said, "This requires a breast doctor." That was strange, I thought, and, for the first time also realized that the lump didn't feel like a cyst, at least to  him. He didn't make eye contact with me for the rest of the brief visit.

When I went for another mammogram and sonar, the radiologist came to give me his report. He didn't look at me, either.  He approached me with his head down, not looking at me at all.  I instantly knew the  news was bad.   Indeed, he said, "This is serious." and gave me the name of a surgeon to go to.

When I told my husband, he said,  "That doesn't mean it's cancer.  You're reading too much into it. The perils of being a linguist."  He came with me to the surgeon.  The surgeon said, "There is no doubt that it is cancer." The subsequent tissue analyses showed that not only do I have cancer, but that it is invasive. It is not in situ, meaning it has spread.

So, my analyses were correct.  When people have bad news for you, they can't look in your face.

Fortunately, I live near a world class cancer treatment center and have good doctors. Just remember this tidbit about how people tell you what they don't mean to tell you if you pay attention to their body language and eye contact.