Saturday, 9 February 2013

Deaf Old Buggers in a Subjunctive Mood

One of the topics discussed by the Deaf Old Buggers on a recent hike was the subjunctive mood. Did it still exist in English? One of our members, who serves on a voluntary Board, had been extolling the virtues of a fellow director.

Pray God, she stay on the Board, he said.

This led to a discussion, not only about his appeal to the Deity, but his choice of the form of the verb. "Stay" or "stays" was the question. We were divided.

What would you say?

I argued that the correct form was "stay" and that this was one of the few instances of the subjunctive mood in English. I explained that unlike the tense (present, past, future, etc), or the voice (active or passive), the mood of a verb expressed the kind of action depicted. The indicative mood conveys something that actually happens; the imperative mood, a command; and the subjunctive mood, a state of "unreality", something that could be or should be happening.

As in French, the subjunctive mood is used in dependent clauses to express desire or necessity. Unlike French, the subjunctive mood in English differs from the indicative, and is therefore noticeable, only in the third person singular present tense. Here are some examples.

It is important that he attend (not "attends") the meeting.

I suggest that she be (not "is") there.

Or in motions:

Moved that the President investigate the matter and report (not "investigates" and "reports") back at the next meeting.

The subjunctive used to convey a supposition as well. I remember a theorem from my school geometry book in 1956, a book which had been reprinted many times since its first publication at the turn of the century:

If one straight line meet another straight line, the angles subtended equal 180 degrees.

Or from that great chorus which we recently sang so well:

Let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.

In the past tense, the subjunctive is evident in only one form, again to express a supposition or desire.

If I were (not "was") king.

I wish I were (not "was") prime minister.

O that spring were (not "was") here!

Whether you use the subjunctive, and whether it sounds right when you hear it, may depend on your age and background. Look back at the examples above and say them to yourself. Which sounds better to you?

I leave you with the following example, where the choice of indicative or subjunctive changes the meaning of the sentence. From the Globe of 20/02/13:

The government is insisting that Mr. Chavez remains in charge, playing an upbeat jingle on state television Tuesday with the message: "He's back, he's back!"

Here the government is saying that Mr. Chavez is, in fact, still in charge, despite rumours to the contrary. But had the writer used the subjunctive:

The government is insisting that Mr. Chavez remain in charge, playing an upbeat jingle on state television Tuesday with the message: "He's back, he's back!"

then the government would be saying that Mr. Chavez must remain in charge, despite calls for his resignation.

Invigorated by this discussion, the Deaf Old Buggers hiked on in an imperative mood.

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