Say It Isn’t So: The Subjunctive

It’s usually a safe bet if you want to send people running for the doors to mention the word subjunctive. Uttered loudly or softly, the word will for most of us call forth a repressed memory of treacherous days in grammar class, days made all the worse if we saw the sun shining brightly outside. The subjunctive remains, though, an unavoidable topic if we wish to strengthen our grasp of the English language, and so perhaps a few words here will begin, though only begin, to clarify some lingering confusions.

Let’s begin with this idea about life in the world: there are facts, there are commands, and there are opinions. With clouds bursting open, for example, and water streaming from the sky, I might look from the window and say that It is raining, and in hearing the verb is, you would know I am intending to communicate a fact. If, in turn, you replied by saying, Close the window, I would know you were telling me to do something, that you were issuing a command, so to speak, not stating an existing fact. And if I then sighed a deep, sad sigh and said, Oh, I wish it weren’t raining, I would be expressing an opinion I held, a desire or thought that is mine within my soul, not a fact in the world that is everyone’s to share and confirm.

These three ways of portraying the world, as fact, as command, and as desire (or supposition) are denoted in language by what is called the mood of a verb. Modern English grammar recognizes three such moods: the indicative, if we intend our statement to be understood as fact; the imperative, if we intend to issue a direct command to someone; and the subjunctive, if we intend to express our internal reflections, so to speak: what we hope or wish or see only as a possibility.

One of the reasons the subjunctive evades our grasp so easily is that we just don’t use it as often as we used to in English. Even only a little more than a century ago, we were likelier to say, If that be true, I will help him, whereas today we would certainly change the subjunctive be to the indicative is: If that is true, I will help him. Some thoughtful observers of the language maintain that preferring the indicative to the subjunctive now has to do with our ever more scientific, empirical culture; that we are anxious to come to a decision about matters at hand so that we can decide and act and produce things and facts, the very external world the indicative mood is meant to convey. Be that as it may (and in that slightly stilted phrase the subjunctive still lingers), there remain a few occasions where the subjunctive mood is required, among them contrary-to-fact conditions (for an explanation of which see the post In a Contrary Mood) and certain so-called present suppositions.

A supposition is an assumption, something I maintain as true and on which something else may or may not come into being. If I say, for example, that my client is demanding that the terms of the contract be fulfilled to the letter, it is a fact that my client is demanding something, so the indicative verb is in the first clause is correct. But my client can demand whatever he would like all day and night, and that will not necessarily bring what he wants into factual reality. Whether the other party to the agreement does indeed fulfill every term of the contract remains to be seen, and so the subjunctive verb be is correct in the second clause, which is stating the outcome being supposed in the first clause—something desired, but not yet a fact. This use of the subjunctive is still required in Standard English, as it is also still required in a contrary-to-fact condition such as If that were true, I would help him (the subtext of which is but it’s not, so I won’t).

All of this is but a first glance at the subjunctive; how that mood is formed and how some verbs forms like may and might and could and would can be either subjunctive or indicative require a steady hand to sort out. That close work, though, can reveal an unsuspected once-upon-a-time dimension to the language, a place which the fact-finding indicative succeeds in casting a spell over. Subtle riches of thought might lie behind the obvious world of fact, realities not sensed but thought, seen not with the bright light of the indicative, but with the more refined and subtle understanding that the subjunctive mood makes possible.


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