Some recurrent misuses of the English subjective – II


Two weeks ago, I called attention to this faulty sentence construction in the otherwise well-argued editorial of a leading Metro Manila broadsheet: “It is imperative that the Philippine government takes a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.”

It’s obviously counterintuitive to say that something is grammatically wrong with that sentence. After all, the doer of the action, “the Philippine government,” is in the third-person singular, so following the subject-verb agreement rule, the verb phrase expressing its action should also be in the third-person singular, “takes a firm stand.” Right?

Wrong. In sentences that use a “that”-clause to express the speaker’s insistence that a particular action be taken, the verb in the third-person singular should drop the the “-s” or “-es” at its tail end and take the verb’s base form (its infinitive form without the “to”). This is the parliamentary motion or jussive form of the subjunctive, a rhetorical construction—call it an editorial subjunctive if you will—designed to make the speaker’s personal preference sound more imperative and stately and more convincing than ordinary speech.

That statement from the broadsheet’s editorial is a subjunctive sentence of this kind, so its correct construction is as follows: “It is imperative that the Philippine government take a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.” This prescription admittedly goes against the grain of what many have learned about English grammar, so it will take some doing before they can use the subjunctive confidently.

To fully understand the workings of the subjunctive, we first need to recall that verbs in English have three general moods; mood is meant here to be that aspect of the verb that expresses the state of mind or attitude of the writer or speaker toward what’s being said.

These three moods are the indicative mood, the imperative mood, and the subjunctive mood.

The indicative, the most familiar of the three moods, conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Statements in the indicative mood seek to give the impression that the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner. Their operative verbs take their normal inflections in all the tenses and typically obey the subject-verb agreement rule at all times.

Indicative sentence stating an objective fact: “In our solar system, Earth is the only planet in the habitable zone” (CNN). Stating an opinion: “Psychologist Jesse Bering says that humanity is evolutionarily hard-wired for God.” Posing a question: “Will using ‘alright’ instead of ‘all right’ mark me as an ignoramus?”

The imperative mood denotes the attitude of a speaker who (1) demands or orders a particular action, (2) makes a request or suggestion, (3) gives advice, or (4) states a prohibition. This mood uses the base form of the operative verb (its infinitive form without the “to”), and is most often used in second-person, present-tense sentences that use an elliptical subject or the unstated second-person pronoun “you.”

Imperative statement demanding a particular action: “Catch that thief!” Making a request or suggestion: “Please let them go.” Giving advice: “Read the instructions carefully before taking that medicine.” Stating a prohibition: “Don’t enter this area.”

The subjunctive mood, which only has present-tense and past-tense forms, is used to communicate the following: (1) a possibility (2) a desire or wishful attitude, (3) insistence on a particular action, (4) doubt about a certain outcome, (5) an unreal situation or an idea contrary to fact, or (6) a request or suggestion. Moreover, when the subjunctive works in tandem with such auxiliary verbs as “could,” “would,” and “should,” it can convey more intricate and sophisticated shades of possibility and conditionality.

We will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

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  1. Thanks, Samuel, you’re absolutely right! Please accept my apologies for that awful proofreading oversight. From now on, I promise to be as vigilant with my headlines as with my body text.

  2. Samuel Abiertos on

    I noticed a proofreading error in the title of your column. The word “subjective” should read “subjunctive” instead, right?