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Grammar Basics: Subjunctive

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Bruce Mitchell tells us in ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’ that Old English had a Present Subjunctive and a Preterite Subjunctive and in each there was a singular form and a plural form. For example, singan (to sing) had Present Subjunctive singular singe (identical to the first person singular of the Present Indicative) and plural singen and Preterite Subjunctive had singular sunge and plural sungen.

As Mitchell writes, ‘the subjunctive is now largely obsolete’, and, as David Crystal writes in ‘Rediscover Grammar’, ‘The subjunctive is used very little in modern English’. Indeed, English has never had a full set of subjunctive forms which serve no other purpose in the way that, say, Latin and French (at least for être and avoir) have. It survives in English in formulaic expressions such as God Save The Queen and Heaven Forbid. These are unlikely ever to change, although the same sentiments can be expressed as May God Save The Queen and May Heaven Forbid. It is also present in what is known as the mandative subjunctive. There, it occurs after verbs of proposing, suggesting and recommending, as in The directors recommend that, after many years of loyal service, he retire and I propose that she offer an apology. Here, too, it is possible, at least in British English, to say instead The directors recommend that, after many years of loyal service, he should retire and I propose that she should offer an apology.

Most grammarians also see the subjunctive in conditional sentences such as I’d tell the truth if I were you and If he were a gentleman, he’d apologise’, where it expresses a hypothetical or unreal meaning, even though it is evident only in the first and third persons singular, where were takes the place of was. However, was is sometimes mandatory, as in If I was rude, I apologize. That has a different meaning from If I were rude, I would apologize, but even there, little seems to be gained by not using the indicative If I was rude, I would apologize. Those who argue otherwise must explain how we are able to differentiate between the two meanings in the second person and in the first and third persons plural. (Those who also wish to preserve the mandative subjunctive must answer a similar question.)

I had a reason for beginning the previous paragraph with the words ‘most grammarians’. The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, describe the use of were in the first and third person singular not as a subjunctive form, but as ‘irrealis’ were. In a sentence such I was rude to you yesterday and I apologise’, was has a temporal meaning, but in If I was rude, I would apologize’, even though it takes the same form, it has a modal one. It is certainly possible to replace was in the second sentence with were, but doing so makes the sentence more formal. It does not make it any more grammatical.

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The Negative Canon: Subjunctive

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Old English had subjunctive inflections, in the way that some languages still do. The subjunctive forms were fewer than the indicative forms, with just one singular form and one plural form in each of the present and preterite tenses. (The verb for be was slightly different, because there were two forms, beon and wesan, from different roots. That, incidentally, is why we have present tense I am and past tense I was.) Modern English has no verb forms used for the subjunctive and nothing else. Instead, the subjunctive takes the form of the infinitive, except in the ‘were-subjunctive’, where were is used instead of was in the first and third person singular.

It’s convenient to consider the subjunctive under three headings.

Formulaic subjunctive. The formulaic subjunctive survives in a number of fossilized expressions such as ‘Heaven forbid!’ and Be that as it may. They are relatively few in number, and have no bearing on the use of the subjunctive elsewhere.

Mandative Subjunctive. The mandative subjunctive is used in a dependent clause that follows verbs such as those of recommending, ordering, advising or suggesting. It is also found after predicative adjectives such as essential, important, necessary and vital and conjunctions such as in order that and on condition that. In active constructions, except where the verb be occurs, the subjunctive is apparent only in the third person singular:

(1) We suggest she apologise.

In passive constructions and in other clauses with be, the plain form is used for all persons and numbers:

(2) The board recommended that I/you/he/she/we/they be dismissed immediately.

This use of the subjunctive seems to be favoured more in American English than in British English. To British ears it may sound very formal, and speakers of British English may prefer the indicative, or the modal verb should:

(3) We suggest she should apologise.


(4) The board recommended that he should be dismissed immediately.

Indeed, an alternative analysis of sentences such as (1) and (2) might see them as ellipted forms of (3) and (4).

Some will claim that the subjunctive is essential to differentiate, to take an example from Trask’s ‘Mind the Gaffe’, between:

(8) He insisted that they be locked up.


(9) He insisted that they were locked up.

This ignores the all-important role of context. These sentences would not occur in isolation. Even with the indicative as in (9), the preceding text would normally make it clear whether they were already locked up, or whether their being so was a desirable act. In British English at least, the modal should is again available, if necessary:

(10) He insisted that they should be locked up.

The plain form of be was once also used in an if-clause, as in, to take another example from Trask, if this be want you want rather than if this is want you want. That, as Trask says, sounds comical today.

The ‘Were-Subjunctive’. The third construction normally included under the heading ‘subjunctive’ is the use of ‘unreal’ were. It’s found in conditional sentences, and after verbs of wishing:

(5) If I were you, I wouldn’t go.

(6) He might do better, if he were to be nicer to other people.

(7) I wish I were richer than I am.

The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ don’t regard this as subjunctive at all. In ‘A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar’, they argue that:

. . . there are no grounds for analysing this ‘were’ as a past tense counterpart of the be that we find in constructions like ‘It’s vital that he be kind to her’. We don’t use ‘subjunctive’ as a term for an inflectional category, but for a syntactic construction employing the plain form of the verb.

They use instead the term ‘irrealis’ were, ‘indicating that it conveys degrees of remoteness from factuality’. They further comment:

This use of ‘were’ is highly exceptional: there is no other verb in the language where the modal remoteness meaning is expressed by a different inflectional form from the past time meaning. The irrealis form is unique to ‘be’, and limited to the 1st and 3rd person singular. It is an untidy relic of an earlier system, and some speakers usually, if not always, use preterite ‘was’ instead.

The use of the both the mandative subjunctive and the ‘were-subjunctive’ will seldom be ungrammatical, and some contexts may demand it, but that is not to say it is always necessary. Those who insist on it on all possible occasions take no account of context. There is little risk of ambiguity if the indicative is used in its place, and in Britain, at least, many contexts demand an informal style in which forms like the subjunctive are inappropriate. ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’, it is true, believes that:

. . .  there are still signs that it is not extinct [in speech] . . . And clearly the subjunctive is not gone away from writing, no matter how many commentators say that it is not as common now as it was a century ago.

That may be a specifically American view, contrasting with that of two eminent authorities on English on the British side of the Atlantic. In ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’, Bruce Mitchell wrote:

The subjunctive is now largely obsolete

and David Crystal wrote in ‘Rediscover Grammar’:

The subjunctive is used very little in modern English, being mainly restricted to formal or formulaic expression.

Pam Peters, an Australian, describes the preservation of the subjunctive in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ as being one of the shibboleths that are :

. . . endorsed without any critical thought about their basis in contemporary English. More damagingly, they are made the touchstones of ‘correct’ English, to which everyone must adhere or be damned.

That’s why the subjunctive deserves a place in the Negative Canon. As Arthur Hugh Clough wrote of the sixth commandment, so of the subjunctive:

Thou shalt not kill, nor strive
Officiously to keep alive.


Filed under The Negative Canon