• Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive

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    Over the past 12 years that I’ve been writing this column, I called attention every now and then to the recurrent misuse of the English subjunctive by some news reporters and editors and even by some academics. In the beginning, though, I’d let pass most of the faulty sentence constructions without comment on the presumption that they were just proofreading or typographical errors.

    Such was my initial presumption when I came across this paraphrase in a news report of an academic official’s statement in 2012 about the Reproductive Health Bill (underscoring mine): “The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill is passed by Congress, Villarin said.” Of course, that sentence should be using “be” instead of “is” as linking verb because it is in the subjunctive mood: “The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill be passed by Congress, Villarin said.” But then, who wouldn’t think that a proofreader had only mistakenly replaced the correct “be” in the original manuscript with the wrong “is”?

    On the other hand, this commentary by a newspaper columnist in 2009 left little doubt in my mind that he wasn’t conversant with the subjunctive: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimizes his public appearances or goes on self-exile.” With two verbs in a row rendered in the incorrect subjunctive form, it was highly unlikely that time that a proofreading or typographical error was the culpit. A subjunctive-savvy writer would have dropped the “-s” or “-es” from the tail end of the verbs to come up with this correct construction: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimize his public appearances or go on self-exile.” (Note: I used the fictitious name “Romano” here to avoid giving political color to this discussion.)

    It’s been quite a while since I last came across a faulty subjunctive construction in the print media, so I began to entertain the notion that perhaps media people had finally licked their problem with subjunctives for good. Imagine my disappointment then when I came across this faulty subjunctive construction a few days ago in—of all places—the editorial of a leading national broadsheet: “It is imperative that the Philippine government takes a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.”

    Like the two verbs in that commentary by a newspaper columnist, the verb “takes” in that subjunctive sentence should have dropped the “-s” at its tail end: “It is imperative that the Philippine government take a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.”

    That the faulty subjunctive sentence above—and I don’t think that what we have here is a proofreading or typographical fluke—should crop up in the editorial of a leading broadsheet should be a wake-up call for media people to really get to know how to construct subjunctive sentences properly. It would really be a shame if an otherwise well-written reportage or well-argued commentary is needlessly undermined by faulty subjunctive construction.

    To help solve this problem, I have decided to do a full-dress review of the subjunctive mood in English starting next week. The emphasis will be on how it differs from the indicative and imperative moods. The review will then take up the admittedly baffling behaviors of verbs in the subjunctive third-person singular, which drop the expected “-s” (or “-es”) at their tail end and take their base form instead; the deviant behavior of “be” in the present-tense subjunctive, in which “be” doesn’t change form at all no matter what person or number is taken by the subject; and the maverick behavior of “be” in subjunctive “if”-clauses, where that verb sticks to the past-tense subjunctive form “were” all throughout regardless of the person and number of its subject.

    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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    11 Comments

    1. mauricio palao on

      Roslee Formoso’s comment betrays a need for better ‘English Teachers’ in our schools. Failing in this we might, perhaps, consider developing our own brand of ‘Pidgin English’ in much the same way as that of Papua New Guinea have theirs, or, a Japanese style ‘Bamboo English’ which is still in use in Okinawa.

      • Mr. Palao, my sense of the situation is that even among the better English teachers in the Philippines, the subjunctive sometimes proves too tough both to comprehend and to teach. It’s indeed one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar, but I beg to disagree with you that we need to develop our own brand of Pidgin English just to avoid dealing with subjunctive sentences. I’d rather that we seize the bull by its horns by taking every opportunity to learn the subjunctive until it becomes second nature to us. This is why I’ll again be doing a full-dress review of the subjunctive in my subsequent columns in The Manila Times. That will be after the Holy Week, starting the April 26 issue. Watch for it!

    2. how about: ” the university will also support the church in its future actions if the bill is passed by congress” ?

    3. In par 3, sentence 2 of the column above, the word “culprit” was misspelled as “culpit.” Now that’s a true typographical error, for which the author would like to apologize.

    4. In regards to the second issue,” Mr. Romano minimizes his appearances,,” is correct. The word “minimizes must agree with appearances,” if you are English Major you will understand what I mean.

      • Atty. Roslee M. Formoso, I suggest that you take the sentence as a whole so you can analyze it properly: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimizes his public appearances or goes on self-exile.” The columnist clearly meant that sentence not as a simple declaration but as an exhortation, thus putting the sentence in the subjunctive mood rather than in the indicative mood. I explain the distinction in detail in my posting in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, “The proper use of the English subjunctive” (http://tinyurl.com/mnamldd). Also, I must disagree with your statement that the word “minimizes” must agree with the word “appearances.” The rule on subject-verb agreement doesn’t apply in this particular instance because “minimizes” isn’t a subject and “appearances” isn’t a verb but an object of the preposition. I therefore dare say that if you were an English major before taking up law and this became your understanding of subject-verb agreement, you got it all wrong about that rule. For a clarification of this rule, you may want to check out this Forum posting of mine, “Steeling ourselves against common subject-verb disagreement pitfalls” (http://tinyurl.com/n5xm5cp).

    5. With reference to the first issue, ” The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill is passed by Congress”……

      The phrase is a ‘present to the future participles’, a phrase its tense tenor speaks of the ‘present’ continuing to the future.

      “university” as referred as proper noun not a common should first letter in capital’.

      Since the statement is present to the future the participle “be” is the correct usage.

      • Atty. Formoso, you are absolutely right in your conclusion that “be” is the correct usage in this sentence: “The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill (is, be) passed by Congress, Villarin said.” But as in the case of your earlier commentary above, I must say that your analysis of that sentence is off the mark in practically all respects. That sentence needs “be” instead of “is” as the form of the linking verb because the sentence is in the subjunctive mood. I do realize that this won’t become self-evident until you get a clear understanding of what the English subjunctive is as opposed to the indicative, so while waiting for the full-scale discussion of the subject in my subsequent columns, you may want to check out in advance all of my postings about subjunctive usage. Simply log on to the Forum (http://josecarilloforum.com/) and do a search of the postings. Good luck!