Subjunctivitis

By: J. Stapley - August 04, 2005

Today, I break with the traditional content of Splendid Sun and offer a brief note on the subjunctive form in the English language. If we are blogging, we are, in some measure, writers. And while some argue that the subjunctive form has passed away, I proclaim that it is not dead, nor doth it sleep.

The subjunctive form is used to emphasize certain states of reality.

Description of Exigency
In this instance, the unconjugated verb (minus the “to”) is used after a clause separated by “that”:

I insist that you be there tonight.

It is necessary that you be there tonight.

The Conditional “Were”
The conditional subjunctive uses “were” for all subjects:

If it were not for learning French I would probably not know about this form. (The French still teach grammar)

There are several other usages, many of which do seem antiquated. For a more complete discussion of the verb form see these two references.

Disclaimer
I realize that I am often horribly lazy in writing, so I take this is a universal exhortation and remember Camille Paglia’s comments from a couple of years back:

Blog reading for me is like going down to the cellar amid shelves and shelves of musty books that you’re condemned to turn the pages of. Bad prose, endless reams of bad prose! There’s a lack of discipline, a feeling that anything that crosses one’s mind is important or interesting to others. People say that the best part about writing a blog is that there’s no editing — it’s free speech without institutional control. Well, sure, but writing isn’t ma******tion — you’ve got to self-edit. (Salon.com, 2003, Camille Speaks)

26 Comments

  1. Alright, out with it. What motivated this post?

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — 8/4/2005 @ 3:57 pm

  2. So this is what summer blogging has come to, huh? Grammer lessons!? 😉

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — 8/4/2005 @ 3:57 pm

  3. 🙂

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/4/2005 @ 4:01 pm

  4. Subjunctivitis — sounds contagious. This can only be a concern of someone who has not watched over the shoulder of a teenager doing instant messaging. Some people (not you, I’m thinking of folks like Camille) think blogging is like writing in the New Yorker, sort of a game of grammatical “Gotcha!” I’m all for self-editing, but I think the subjunctive mood is shooting a little high. Just getting “its” and “it’s” right is doing pretty well for most of us.

    You realize, I suppose, that a post like this alerts the local grammar police to watch your blog with a careful eye for about the next four weeks?

    Comment by Dave — 8/4/2005 @ 4:02 pm

  5. You realize, I suppose, that a post like this alerts the local grammar police to watch your blog with a careful eye for about the next four weeks?

    Oh, yes…and I’ll get hosed because I am lazy and don’t know several rules. I do think that blogs are relaxed fora, so we don’t need to have pristine posts. I don’t think I have had one yet.

    Comments are, of course, not bound by any rules.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/4/2005 @ 4:34 pm

  6. Holy crap, J!

    I was thinking the very same thing not two days ago. I love the subjunctive when it’s used well, and find it adds a layer of beauty to the language.

    So thanks. If only everyone were as pedantic as you and I!

    Comment by Justin H — 8/4/2005 @ 4:40 pm

  7. As a former English major, I am constantly embarrassed by things I should know but don’t. I didn’t know that “might” should only be used in the past tense until last week.

    The only reason I even know about the subjunctive is from learning it in Spanish.

    Comment by NFlanders — 8/4/2005 @ 4:50 pm

  8. I insist that you be there tonight.
    It is necessary that you be there tonight.

    I’m not even sure how one would screw these sentences up… Would it be by replacing the “be” with “are”? Using an “are” there just sounds odd to me…

    Let me also throw in a plug to Save the Adverb! Adding a little “ly” at the end of appropriate words is not too much ask, is it? That is the one form of grammar drift that I hope we can change quick… ly.

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — 8/4/2005 @ 5:05 pm

  9. Grammar Nazis and prescriptive grammarians unite!

    Comment by Ben S. — 8/4/2005 @ 6:11 pm

  10. I aint done got no problems wit’ da grammer, not what I ain’t got controled anywise.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — 8/4/2005 @ 6:23 pm

  11. I love the subjunctive–once again, because of Spanish. When speaking in English, non-subjunctive verbs in subjunctive-requiring situations drive me crazy. That said, I probably make mistakes on this all the time. I’d love to relearn English grammar at some point so that I could get it right. But I always have more important things to do. Or at least things I like more.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — 8/4/2005 @ 8:29 pm

  12. It’s strange, but I was driving to work this morning (or was it yesterday?) thinking about subjunctives and wishing for a better mastery of that mood. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe Jonathan, Justin H, and I all read a post we really disagreed with and wanted to rebut? Subjunctive is suited to describing a debating opponent’s completely incorrect fantasy world and other things that don’t exist. “If matters be as you think them, then …”

    Comment by John Mansfield — 8/4/2005 @ 9:01 pm

  13. If you be thinkin’ I’m goin’ to miss this post, matey, you’re wrong. Arr. Pirates slip in the subjunctive a lot. They slip it in sometimes when it’s not supposed to be there, but hey, pirate movies are all about fantasy, and what might (sic) happen–conditionals. Ebonics is what happens when a group of people gets confused about the subjunctive. I honestly think that the subjunctive might have been seen as a marker of class, so people in certain soci-economic groups over-used it. I have absolutely no evidence of that other than my own musings, a failing for which Paglia would probably flay me.

    I agree that writing in the world is sub-par these days, or at least the par is low. But I think that has more to do with lack of imagination and style than an inability to use the subjunctive. I’m an English professor, and yet I know no one in my field who even cares about whether our students use the subjunctive. As I see it the subjunctive is dying. It’s not dead yet, but unlike the guy in the Monty Python Sketch, it’s not happy, and it’s not getting better. I don’t know that it’s worth saving. It may even be mis-used more than it is used. Making sure people don’t write run-on sentences or fragments, that I can get behind. They’re hard to understand.

    So much for the two cents worth that I really don’t think people are so interested in. I do think we could all spend more time being articulate, but since blogging is really just talking to each other with breaks between, witty conversation can be just too much work sometimes. I wonder if Paglia ever really became part of a conversation on a blog? Her writing is good, but she doesn’t strike me as someone I’d want to do lunch with, though I’ve never met her, and sometimes people surprize you.

    J,
    I know this was just your way of involving me, since I’ve been lazy and haven’t posted for a while.

    Comment by Steve H — 8/5/2005 @ 1:52 am

  14. Speaking of pirates… Am I the only one that thinks L. Tom Perry sounds like a pirate?

    Arrgh! Onward Christian soldiers… On to American Fark!

    Comment by Geoff J — 8/5/2005 @ 11:25 am

  15. He does…I’ve thought the same thing when he says “Lard”.

    And yes Steve, I was hoping that you would weigh in.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/5/2005 @ 7:09 pm

  16. If you think L. Tom Perry sounds like a pirate then you should move to southeast Idaho and you will think everyone there sounds like a pirate!>:)
    Good post J. Like everyone has said, we don’t need to press the issue of being terribly grammatically correct (>8p) but we should at least make an effort to do a little better each time we write.

    Comment by Bret — 8/6/2005 @ 3:32 pm

  17. I must point out that anyone who uses the correct latin plural of forum (see comment 5) is way too worried about being grammatically correct.

    By the way, does anyone know the correct pronunciation of the plural of focus–foci?

    Comment by Craig S. — 8/8/2005 @ 10:37 am

  18. (fō’ sī’, kī’)

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/8/2005 @ 12:09 pm

  19. When I learned the bit of latin I know, I was taught foh-key, that is, the i was pronounced like a long E. (Sorry, dont know how to do the phonetic symbols here. However, I know that Fohk-eye is the current usage of the Latin in English. What the actual, now dead, Romans said, is probably something we won’t ever know. I don’t think their poetry rhymed.

    Comment by Steve H — 8/8/2005 @ 4:05 pm

  20. Ok I’ll give you the point that we have become subjunctively lazy. Were I to complain about current modes of speech, I would mourn that we are a people of dis-allusionment. How long has it been since you heard, used, read a decent allusion? Since the master of allusion, Elder Maxwell, has left us, the world is a much poorer place. I was listening to him once when he said “It is not enough to make the trains run on time…….” (Mussolini promised he would make the trains run on time). Also in my hearing when a wall was being discussed he quoted “Some there is who doesn’t like a wall”. (Frost) People in these gatherings wondered why trains were mentioned and if that “someone” was in authority if they in turn shouldn’t like walls. In former times language was fraught with wonderful allusions, classical phrases and clever references to current events. One was compelled to listen to be able to get what was being said and to have a frame of reference. I feel a loss at the absence. I love to hear/read a well constructed memorable line. Yes I will give you that allusions are used today. I heard someone the other day refer to a motorcycle as their “precious”.

    Comment by jns — 8/8/2005 @ 6:54 pm

  21. jns,
    Of course, when we all use the same allusions, they become cliches (precious). Cliches do nothing but allow us to rest comfortable in the mistaken belief that we understand each other. Allusions invite us to think. You are quite right.

    Comment by Steve H — 8/8/2005 @ 8:30 pm

  22. Just came across this post. Have you seen this website before? It kind of fits…
    SPASTIC

    Comment by sam — 9/2/2005 @ 4:44 pm

  23. I taught English Composition courses at BYU as a graduate student. Outside the room where the graduate students had their offices, a few undergraduates were seated discussing the novel they had read for class. They were arguing about what it meant, how people interpreted it in so many ways, how some liked it and others didn’t.

    “This is what I don’t like about English,” one sweetly piped up. “It’s all so subjunctive.”

    Comment by Keith — 9/5/2005 @ 4:46 pm

  24. Before now, I’ve been too afriad to post on this site, but I just *had* to comment because I thought I was the only person in the world who still uses the subjunctive. It’s my pet peeve, I guess. In fact, I find myself substituting “were” for “was” all the time when singing popular songs that use the phrase “If I was . . .” I, too, learned all I know about the subjunctive from French grammar class. =)

    Comment by K Swinton — 9/12/2005 @ 11:15 am

  25. fiat lux

    Comment by kdawson — 9/12/2005 @ 11:45 am

  26. Dont you just hate it when people use foreign languages to make the rest of us feel ignert?

    By the way, it means “let there be light”.

    Comment by Craig S. — 9/12/2005 @ 12:51 pm

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