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.
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.
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