Guest Post by Damien Venuto
Truth be told… yes and no. I vaguely remember my English grammar teacher talking about the subjunctive, but I didn’t really have the foggiest idea what it was until I started to learn French and Spanish, where you use the subjunctive all the time.
You wouldn’t believe the amount of emphasis French language courses in France put on teaching the subjunctive form. The reality is that most English speakers won’t be able to tell you what the subjunctive form is. The first time I heard about it (in French lessons) I racked my brain for some English examples.
In (rather old-fashioned) phrases:
“Come what may.” (Wasn’t that one in a song?)
“Lord help me.” (I think I heard that in an old movie.)
In ‘if’ clauses:
“If I were richer, I would give lots of money to charity.” (That’s what they all say!)
“If it please you…” (Does anybody say that anymore?)
The subjunctive is often present in fossil phrases(expressions containing words that have dropped out of use over the years.) These phrases are used more regularly than you might think. The expression “woe betide” is one – and it’s one of the most common uses of the English subjunctive. There are scores of similar phrases that often slip into our speech without us even realizing.
There’s a growing consensus that the English subjunctive is old-fashioned and has no place in modern writing. But traditionalists think there’s still a place for the English subjunctive, and it shouldn’t be so hastily chucked out.
What is the subjunctive?
It’s best to break the concept down into bite-size chunks.
As opposed to the future, past, or present, the subjunctive is not a tense used to indicate time, rather it’s a grammatical ‘mood’. Using it reveals how you feel about what you’re saying.
It’s used to talk about hypothetical situations:
“If I were a millionaire, I’d be hanging out on a nice, sunny beach.”
“I wish I were a millionaire.” (…nice sunny beach!)
or to make polite or formal requests:
“I suggest that she remain anonymous.”
or to express a need or a valued judgment:
“It’s important that he come clean.”
These examples sound slightly awkward to most modern ears because we usually replace the subjunctive with the indicative:
“If I was a millionaire, I’d buy my own boat.”
“I wish he was here now.”
“It’s essential that he goes.”
“I suggest she remains indoors.”
“It’s important that he comes clean.
This brings us back to fossilization. Although the subjunctive was traditionally considered correct, it’s now rarely used. Languages evolve according to how they’re used – so maybe it’s time to label the subjunctive ‘extinct’.
But is the subjunctive conducive to good writing? The answer to this question really depends on the type of writing. The subjunctive form is perhaps not suitable for journalistic writing, which is strictly involved with reality and facts. But, it might still have a place in creative writing.
I once attended an English summer camp and the teacher explained that effective creative writing – the use of dialogue in particular – requires the writer to give life to a character. The subjunctive could be used to shape the speech patterns of a specific character.
Whether or not you throw the English subjunctive on the scrap-heap will depend on your stance in the ‘conserve tradition or embrace modernity’ debate. A happy medium for most of us will be to restrict the use of the subjunctive to those everyday phrases that refuse to go away:
“Wish you were here”
“Be that as it may”
“Truth be told”
Note: To form the present subjunctive, you use the infinitive form (e.g. “be”) where you’d usually use another tense in the indicative mood (e.g. “is”). You can also use the past subjunctive (e.g. “I wish you were here”), the pluperfect subjunctive (e.g. “I wish you had been here”) and the future subjunctive (e.g. “If you were to come here”).