Monday, August 11, 2008


The subjunctive is just one of many historical aspects of English that are falling by the wayside. An example most people will recognize (and probably the only instance where the subjunctive would be commonly used) is saying "if I were" (subjunctive) rather than "if I was" (indicative).

Disclaimer: I prefer to use the subjunctive. I always use it where it is appropriate. It annoys me when people don't use the subjunctive. However, there is nothing "wrong" with using the indicative rather than the subjunctive. Many people did not acquire the use of the subjunctive when they acquired English. It is baseless and ridiculous to call the non-use of the subjunctive "improper English".

The subjunctive generally indicates situations that are counter-factual (contrary to fact, e.g., "I wish I were a millionaire"), conditional ("...whether it be/be it Communism, Capitalism, or some other economic structure..."), or, in certain rote phrases, future or nonaffirmative ("'til death do us part"). It was this last usage that caught me off guard, because I've never consciously analyzed that phrase, so familiar from wedding ceremonies. Upon reflection, I realized it must be the subjunctive (which in this case is signified by the bare form of the verb "do"), even though I can't think of a single productive instance (cf. *until he go to the store).

Bonus trivia: "If he were in the room" is counter-factual, and implies that he is not, while "If he be in the room" is a true conditional, implying that it is uncertain whether or not he is in the room (not that I've ever heard this used).


N said...

Why not "if he is in the room" instead of "if he be in the room." 'be' sounds only natural to pirate-talk and AAVE to me.

linguistlessons said...

My instinct here is that the bare form "be" is used in a conditional. I never use the subjunctive in this context, however, and I doubt I've heard anyone use it recently, if ever. I always use "is".

goofy said...

Isn't the "were" of "if I were" often called the irrealis? Since it doesn't have the same distribution or function as the present subjunctive (ie "I demand that this cease").

linguistlessons said...

"If I were" is an example of a counterfactual, which is indeed one instance of an irrealis mood.

Nick said...

Good article

Nick said...

Sometimes I say "If I be in the room", but most people will say "Should I be in the room" or "If I should be in the room". I always say the subjunctive when I say "as long as I be in the room...".

Yes, it is the subjunctive. Everyone says "if truth be told"; "Until death do us part" is an old form of the subjunctive. Technically a subjunctive verb must come after every conjunction, but this rule is seldom followed anymore.

My client won't talk until he BE given a good deal.
My client wouldn't talk until he WERE given a good deal.

Before I BE put to death, I just want to say one thing.
Before I WERE put to death, I would just want to say one thing.

Wherever you [may] BE, I will find you; no matter how long it [might] TAKE.
Wherever you WERE, I would find you; no matter how long it TOOK.

These are older rules and in no part mandatory anymore, except in the PAST SUBJUNCTIVE. The present is not, but let's SAY you WERE taking French. In French, the words "before" and "until" take a subjunctive verb and there's no getting around that. If one PUT it in the indicative, that person will get baleful glares.

You hear it in "until" in the song, "America the Beautiful":

"till all success BE nobleness and every gain divine"

You will hear "if that be the case" sometimes or "if it be possible" or "if I be allowed to speak" or "if he do well on his test", but normally the indicative or "should" plus bare infinitive will come into place here. Just remember, the subjunctive is only necessary if you BE feeling very formal. Another example to show you why a subjunctive is in a subordinate that clause:

I demand that this CEASE because if it NOT CEASE, I shall be forced to make it CEASE.

I ask that he BE in the room. If he BE in the room, we can help him GET it done.

Anthony Eyler said...

To not use subjunctive when possible is certainly incorrect English. Just as it is incorrect Spanish or French to not do so where possible.

linguistlessons said...

As I pointed out in the post, the position that the subjunctive must be used whenever possible is prescriptive at best, ridiculous and incorrect at worst. I think most people would reject "If John drive, I don't want to go on the road trip." The subjunctive is only preserved in a few verbs, even in prescriptive English. And while I'm not sure about French, I do know that Spanish too is losing the subjunctive.

Nick said...

I think my original post last year was meant to show how the English subjunctive can be used; not how it is pragmatically used. I use it sometimes in those ways I have shown, but not always. It depends on my MOOD lol.

Nick said...

Oh, and "if John drive" may be rejected, but it doesn't mean it is grammatically incorrect. I've used it before once and got a point deducted on a paper, but it was "whether she think" and when I told my professor it was the subjunctive and I was just being fancy, he smiled, agreed with my argument, and put the point back.