Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Guest Blogger: The Subjunctive

A couple of weeks ago I posted about using the passive voice in writing. I received a comment by someone who quite rightly pointed out that I managed to do this without actually using the passive voice in any of my examples. I found out that this grammarian has a blog of his own in which he discusses words and grammar. I liked his blog, so I invited him to write a guest blog for us, which I present for all of you below. Our guest blogger lives in Canada and is interested in languages and linguistics.

Check out his blog at:

And now from our Guest Blogger:

People have been mourning the loss of the English subjunctive for about 100 years, but it is still in productive use. It is not as regular or as predictable as it was in Old English, but it is still around, often subtle and invisible.

There are four forms that are commonly called the subjunctive in English.

1. the frozen subjunctive, which exists in set phrases like "God save the queen" and "be that as it may".

2. the uninflected form used in dependent clauses (called the "mandative subjunctive") often after verbs like ask, demand, recommend, suggest, insist, be advisable, be necessary.
I insist that you be quiet.
I demand that this cease.

3. the inverted had and were used in counterfactual clauses:
Had I known this yesterday, I would have done something.
Were I going to Paris, I would learn French.

4. the were form used with first and third person singular in counterfactual clauses:
If I were in Paris, I would learn French.
I wish she weren't going away.

Form 2 is straightforward. Notice the difference in meaning between
She insists that he take his medicine.
She insists that he takes his medicine.

The first sentence uses the mandative subjunctive - the verb take is uninflected. This sentence is a directive; he is being asked or commanded to take his medicine. You can also use should here: She insist that he should take his medicine.

The second sentence, which does not use the subjunctive, is a statement of fact. She is confirming that he takes his medicine regularly.

Because form 2 is signaled only by the lack of -s on the third person singular, it is often invisible. For instance, http://www.dailygate.com/articles/2008/01/30/news/11.txt" this sentence from the Gate City newpaper/a uses the subjunctive, but it is identical in form to the indicative:

In a 2004 survey of all of our buildings' roofs, it was recommended that we replace the George Washington roof in 2007.

Form 4 is where the controversy arises. Forms 3 and 4 are often called the "past subjunctive" (they are derived from the Old English past subjunctive, but they are not always used to refer to past time). Many commentators feel that you should use were in a counterfactual clause after if and wish. "Counterfactual clause" simply means a clause describing something contrary to fact.

I wish there weren't stones in my boots, so I do, and I wish to God I had a cup of tea and a fresh egg - James Stephens, The Crock of Gold, 1912

If I were younger and could see anything at all I would appear or let someone make a film - James Thurber, letter, 15 Aug. 1959

However, was is also used in this context. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes (page 878) that were and was have been used interchangeably in counterfactual clauses since the end of the 17th century.

I wish my cold hand was in the warmest place about you - Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, 5 Feb 1711

I wish H. was not quite so fat - Lord Byron, letter, 8 Dec. 1811

I wish I was six feet tall and I wouldn't mind if I was handsome - And More by Andy Rooney, 1982

Some writers use both was and were close together.

...and all staring, gravely, as if it were a funeral, at me as if I was the coffin - Henry Adams, letter, 15 May 1859

Therefore, I'd says that the decision of whether to use if I were or if I was, I wish I were or I wish I was in counterfactual clauses is a personal choice.

There is one other thing to note. When if and wish do not introduce a clause describing something contrary to fact, the subjunctive is usually not used.

...Freud felt as if he was being observed; raising his eyes he found some children staring down at him - E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime, 1975

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Glen Gordon said...

The way I grew up here in central Canada (Winnipeg), the subjunctive appears to be completely dead in common speech. COMPLETELY dead. Any use of it usually sounds antiquated or uppity. Professors may be heard using it or foreigners from England or India perhaps.

It's interesting but while I'm aware of the subjunctive (and speak French which still uses it) and although I've hypercorrected myself to use subjunctives in text, I still had trouble perceiving what the difference was between "She insists that he take his medicine." and "She insists that he takes his medicine." Even when you said that the latter is a command instead of a suggestion, it still sounded equivalent to my brain, and this would be because of the local English-speaking environment.

Of course, I'm not disputing the differences that you perceive in your dialect. I'm merely reporting a different perception of things elsewhere in the world.

Great article, thanks!

12:12 PM  
Blogger goofy said...

I wasn't aware that some speakers didn't make that distinction. In retrospect it seems like something I should have been aware of. Thanks for pointing it out. It is still a feature of standard written English... at least according to Merriam-Webster's Usage Dictionary. I'm sure you could get away without using it in writing.

6:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home