Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive – IV

2

In last week’s column, we discussed these three specific tasks that are performed by the English subjunctive, namely (1) to indicate a possibility given a hypothetical situation, (2) to express a wishful attitude or desire, and (3) to demand that a particular action be taken. This time we will discuss its three other specific tasks: (4) to describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact, (5) to raise a question about a hypothetical outcome, and (6) to express a request or suggestion.

Advertisements

Before proceeding to Task #4, however, let me add two other subjunctive sentence constructions under Task #3 that we were not able to discuss last week:

(a) When the verb in the “that”-clause comes after a state-of-mind adjective in the main clause such as “decided,” “eager,” “anxious,” or “determined.” Examples: “The school board is decided that the erring principal vacate her post immediately.” “The traffic czar is anxious that every motorist learn defensive driving.” “The talent manager is determined that his protege land the plum movie role.”

(2) When the verb in the “that”-clause comes after a concept expectation noun in the main clause such as “advice,” “condition,” “demand,” “directive,” “intention,” “order,” “proposal,” “recommendation,” “request,” “suggestion,” or “wish.” Examples: “The manager’s advice is that the erring employee resign rather than be fired.” “Their wish is that the country improve its disastrous human rights record.”

Now let’s take up the three other tasks performed by the subjunctive:

4. To describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact. The subjunctive can denote a hypothetical state or outcome given a condition that’s unreal or contrary to fact. The word “if” or “wish” usually indicates such a condition: “If the Internet were not invented, paper encyclopedias would still be a dominant player in the references market.” “How I wish I were with you at the time! I would have told you not to buy that smartphone.” Without “if,” such subjunctive constructions can sometimes take an inverted syntax: “Were our manager more competent, our company wouldn’t be in such dire straights.”

However, when the verb “wonder” or “ask” is used to express an indirect question in “if” constructions denoting an act or state that’s evidently contrary to fact, the subjunctive is uncalled for. The indicative “was” rather than the subjunctive “were” is used instead: “She wondered if the price quoted by her supplier was inclusive of customs duties.” “I was intrigued that the seasoned world traveller asked me if Madagascar was indeed an island in the Pacific.”

5. To raise a question about a hypothetical outcome or to express doubt about certain appearances. Statements that cast doubt on observed behavior or raise a question about a presumed outcome often take the subjunctive form: “She talked about the perils of interbreeding as if she were the world’s most competent genetics authority.” “That would be a logical conclusion if the situation were really as you have testified in court.” “If she were that sure about getting a working visa to the U.S., do you think she would be seeing a new fortune-teller practically every day?”

6. To express a request or suggestion. The subjunctive can be used to formally express a request or suggestion by a speaker of lower rank or social station than the individual being addressed: “We respectfully request that the school board review the course offering in the light of these findings.” “I suggest that the chief executive take the high ground by not interfering in the prosecution of these high-profile criminal cases.”

This ends our review of the English subjunctive. With a clearer understanding of its uses and peculiar grammar behaviors, we should now be able to deal with sentences in this mood as confidently as we do with sentences in the indicative and imperative moods.

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

j8carillo@yahoo.com

Share.
loading...
Loading...

Please follow our commenting guidelines.

2 Comments

  1. I really hate to say this, Jon, but your aggressively pointed but utterly incorrect revisions of my sample English subjunctive sentences show that you don’t know this mood and form of English at all. This is clear proof that being a native speaker of English is no guarantee of being good in English grammar and usage. True, you can say with confidence that you’re English/English, but I’m sorry that you really don’t know the language whereof you speak—a situation that brings to my mind Prof. Henry Higgins’s singsong lament over “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak English?” in the Lerner and Loewe stage musical “My Fair Lady” (lyrics: http://tinyurl.com/mrqfscw) (video: http://tinyurl.com/n2ns6lr).

    This being the case, Jon, I suggest you take a crash course in the English subjunctive posthaste. Regardless of your age and educational attainment, you can begin by studying Parts I-IV of my series of columns in The Manila Times on the subject. If the series doesn’t give you a good handle on the subject, get hold of a copy of my book “Give Your English the Winning Edge.” Study Chapters 77-81. I’m quite positive that they will be an eye-opener to you about this strange and admittedly confusing form and mood of English. The rest of the book will be a bonus, for it should give you a much better understanding and appreciation of the mechanisms of your very own language.

    Don’t fret at all about your extremely challenged Tagalog, Jon. I strongly suggest that you mind your English subjunctive first, regardless of whether it’s the British English or the American English variety. Good luck!

  2. Jon Effemey on

    “The school board is decided that the erring principal vacate her post immediately.” “

    I am English/English.

    This sentence needs correcting! It should be:-

    “The school board has decided that the erring principal vacates her post
    immediately”

    This sentence needs correcting! It should be:-

    ” “The traffic czar is anxious that every motorist learns defensive driving.” “

    and ,

    “Their wish is that the country improves its disastrous human rights record.”

    vacates, learns, improves!…May be vacate, learn and improve work, but as a native English speaker I would use my version.

    But” is ” is definitely wrong. Is “is” present tense, decided is past tense. Therefore has decided. Is deciding? In the process of deciding? This would be present tense.

    Also “testified in court” “testified it in court” ? May be this is American English Grammar.

    Sorry to be picky, your over all piece is really interesting. My Tagalog to date is extremely challenged.

    .