The English subjunctive: keep it or bin it?11-Aug-2011
I probably sound strange for saying this, but one of my favourite parts of the French language is the subjunctive. I think I like it because the verb forms, although irregular, are easy to remember; in fact, I think it is because they are irregular that I can remember them so easily. And while it’s still a nightmare to remember when to use it because its usage is based on uncertainty and ambiguity, once you’ve learnt by drill the phrases and constructions that must take it, it’s actually a fairly simple tense compared to irregular indicative French verb forms.
I think what scares a lot of English language students about the subjunctive mood is the fact that they think English has no equivalent form. Until I started learning the French subjunctive, I didn’t know (consciously) that an English subjunctive existed, though I used it without knowing I was using it. The Guardian recently ran quite an interesting article about the English subjunctive, and whether we even ‘need’ it (http://tinyurl.com/44g3v6l). Opinion seems very divided: while a lot of English people might describe it as pedantic or pretentious to insist on using the English subjunctive, the phrases ‘Long lives the Queen’ and ‘If I was you’ sound nowhere near as fluid as ‘Long live the Queen’ and ‘If I were you,’ their correctly subjunctified equivalents. To argue that we don’t need the subjunctive is a non-argument; to me, that’s like saying we don’t need to use the words navy or royal or sky blue, when we can just say dark or light blue instead.
I think the problem is something bigger, and that problem is that English grammar is not taught in English schools. When I started teaching English in France, I found it very difficult at first to explain grammar rules, because I had no formal, only innate, knowledge of the grammar I was teaching. I think this lack of grammatical education in England might also be the reason why a lot of children don’t go on to study languages at college and beyond: how can we expect people to want to learn the intricate structures of a foreign language when they do not consciously understand their own?
What are your students’ experiences with the English subjunctive? Do those that have a subjunctive in their native languages find it easier to use in English than those that don’t? Do they think it’s important for meaning, or just for sound and fluency?
You can use Macmillan English Campus to teach your students the English subjunctive: just type in ‘subjunctive’ in the Word and Phrase search and find the appropriate exercises for your students from among the results.
Alternatively, you can use some of the onestopenglish resources to guide your teaching of this pesky mood: Jonathan Marks’ ‘Grammar: Mood and modality 1’ explains the basics of the subjunctive mood which expresses ‘uncertainty, unreality, hypotheses, wishes, etc. They often contain verb forms different from those that would be used in equivalent indicative sentences.’ Jonathan himself doesn’t see the value of the subjunctive in English because of its ambiguity, but considering pretty much the whole of the English language is littered with irregularities and ambiguities (rules, exceptions to those rules, and exceptions to those exceptions!), I don’t think I agree.
Long live the subjunctive (or lives, if you prefer!)