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!)

Becca


Comments(3)

  • I’d just like to try and clarify what I said in my onestopenglish article, which Becca alludes to. It’s really a matter of distinguishing between the forms that are used and the way those forms are labelled. The question isn’t “Do we need the forms?” (which is a pointless question) but “Do we need the label ‘subjunctive’?”

    Becca says “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.”

    They’re right. English hasn’t got an equivalent form. But why should that be scary?

    Here’s an example from French, the language Becca refers to:

    «En janvier prochain, j’inviterai tous les partenaires sociaux à participer à un sommet sur l’emploi pour que chacun puisse apporter des solutions, faire des propositions», a annoncé Nicolas Sarkozy.
    (Le Figaro 1.12.11)

    If you extract the word ‘puisse’ from this sentence and consider it in isolation, it’s identifiable as a subjunctive form, distinct from the indicative ‘peut’. Grammars of French, quite rightly, provide information about such subjunctive forms.

    But English?

    I’m quite happy to say “Long live the Queen”. (Well, I’m not, actually; I’d much rather say “Long live the Republic”, but that isn’t a matter of grammar!) I just don’t see why I should think of it as an instance of “the subjunctive”. If you extract ‘live’ from the sentence, you’ve got no grounds for calling it a ‘subjunctive’ form; it’s just the ‘base form’, or ‘infinitive’, of this verb. It’s indistinguishable from the form used in “I live here”, “Where do you live?” etc.

    “Long live X” is an idiom, syntactically unusual and lexically restricted. We don’t say things like “A hundred years live the president” or “Long survive your dynasty” or “Long prosper your firm”.

    Similarly, I’m quite happy to say “If I were you, …..” and to regard it as an idiom, fixed phrase, lexical chunk, etc. etc. etc., in which the form ‘were’ enters, unusually, into concord with a first person singular subject.

    To summarise: if you consider ‘live’ or ‘were’ in isolation, you can’t say that they are ‘subjunctive’ forms, whereas you can with ‘puisse’.

    If you stroll through descriptions of English grammar, you stumble upon odd bits of junk that’s inherited from grammars of Latin and doesn’t serve any useful purpose in describing modern English. (Even the form of the word ‘sub-junk-tive’ suggests that this is a prime example!) Chuck it out. The fact that people say and write things like “What if this were real?” or “They demanded that she leave the premises” doesn’t mean that grammars of modern English need a category called ‘subjunctive’. I was pleased to see that there’s no mention of ‘subjunctive’ in the recently-published ‘English Grammar Today’ (CUP).

    Becca says “I think the problem is something bigger, and that problem is that English grammar is not taught in English schools.” Well, I certainly agree that the grammar of English should be taught in schools in Britain, but teaching poor innocent schoolchildren that there’s such a thing as a “subjunctive” in their language will only cause unnecessary confusion in the short term and will, in the long term, for those who take it seriously, propagate the long-standing and disempowering myth that English is a debased and inadequate dialect of Latin.

    Latin and the modern languages descended from it, and Old English and modern German, among others, have comprehensive sets of subjunctive verb forms, with regularities and irregularities and with extensive and well-defined uses. Modern English hasn’t. The forms that are sometimes labelled ‘subjunctive’ are much more straightforwardly and economically treated as specific uses of ‘past’ and ‘base’ forms.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on December 02nd 2011
  • Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you for your very interesting and detailed comments. I hope I didn’t misunderstand your original article too much!

    I find your point about French grammar (as an example that we can both refer to!) signalling a unique subjunctive form such as ‘puisse’ rather than ‘peut’ and English not possessing the same quality very interesting. I have to say, I do love the intricacies of grammar!

    Thank you again very much for taking the time to comment on this posting, and may I wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2012.

    Best wishes,

    Becca

    Posted by Becca Evans on December 15th 2011
  • Thanks, Becca.
    Season’s greetings and best wishes for a junk-free 2012!
    Jonathan

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on December 16th 2011

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