Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive – III

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In last week’s column, we made a distinction between the subjunctive mood and the indicative and imperative moods. The subjunctive denotes acts or states that are contingent on possible outcomes of the speaker’s wish, desire, or doubt, while the indicative denotes acts and states in real-world situations and the imperative expresses direct commands or requests.

We have already taken up two deviant behaviors of verbs in the subjunctive mood. First, verbs in the subjunctive third-person singular drop the expected “-s” (or “-es”) at their tail end and take their base form instead, as “learn” does in this sentence: “It is essential that he learn to take criticism gracefully.” And second, the verb “be” in subjunctive “that”-clauses doesn’t change form at all no matter what person or number is taken by its subject: “The president ordered that I be here tonight.” “The president ordered that you be here tonight.” “The president ordered that they be here tonight.”

The subjunctive exhibits a third deviant behavior. The verb “be” in subjunctive “if”-clauses sticks to the past-tense plural form “were” regardless of the person and number of its subject: “She avoided contact with me as if I were a leper.” “He spends as if he were a billionaire.” “They elect their leaders as if integrity were not important.”

Clearly knowing these three deviant behaviors, let’s now look into how the subjunctive performs these specific tasks: (1) indicate a possibility given a hypothetical situation (2) express a wishful attitude or desire, (3) demand that a particular action be taken, (4) describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact, (5) raise a question about a hypothetical outcome, and (6) express a request or suggestion.


To indicate a possibility given a hypothetical condition. A subjunctive “if” subordinate clause works with a conditional main clause to indicate a possibility, as in this example: “I would buy that building if I had the funds.” Here, the main clause “I would buy that building” uses the auxiliary verb “would” to denote conditionality, and the subjunctive subordinate clause “if I had the funds” is the condition—a possible but unlikely one—for making the purchase. Take note that “had” here is in the subjunctive past tense, as opposed to the indicative form “can get” in this future-tense sentence: “I will buy that building if I can get the funds this week.”

To express a wishful attitude or desire. In “that”-clauses that follow main clauses expressing a wish, the verb consistently takes the subjunctive past tense: “I wish (that) she were more intelligent.” “I wish (that) I were the committee chairman.” “How I wish (that) you were here right now!” The wish or desired outcome is neither a present reality nor a future certainty.

To demand that a particular action be taken. As already taken up in last week’s column, this is the parliamentary motion or jussive form of the subjunctive, which is used to denote an indirect demand, a strong suggestion, or a pointed request: “We ask that the Ombudsman desist from making the primary suspect a state witness.” “It is imperative that we regain market supremacy.” “It is crucial that we take punitive action right now.”

A sentence can likewise take the subjunctive form if its main clause uses certain verbs that convey effort on the part of the speaker to impose his will on other people. Among such verbs are “demand,” “move,” “ask,” and “insist” as well as “propose,” “prefer,” and “recommend,” as in this example: “They demanded [moved, asked, insisted ] that the government raise the minimum daily wage by P125 across the board.” The verb “raise” in the “that”-clause takes the present-tense subjunctive form (the verb’s infinitive form without the “to”) as opposed to the indicative “raises.”

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

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Find me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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