Monday, May 14, 2012

English Subjunctive Mood--Is the Sun Setting on It ?

The term "subjunctive " refers to the form of verb used by a speaker when he says something contrary to fact  such as a wish, a possibility, a conjecture, a doubt and so on . Many English learners may not be aware of the existence of `these special verb forms . This is a hang-over from Old English period  when subjunctive verb forms were widely used . The AngloSaxons used one set of verb forms for expressing facts and another for expressing wishes , possibilities etc .They even put these forms to creative use as in reported speech when the reporter wanted to distance himself  from what he reported.All this changed during the Middle English period . Contact with French semi-auxiliaries led to the emergence of modal auxiliaries in English . The English language refined upon French auxiliaries  and put them to several uses . Thus English was no longer in need of special verb forms to express contrary-to -fact situations . The characteristic  subjunctive terminations -e and -en dropped out owing to changing stress patterns and thus subjunctive verb forms lost their identity .Scholars like Bradley and Fowler asserted that subjunctive mood would disappear from English sooner or later !

With the loss of their visual and aural identity and most of their functions being taken over by modal auxiliaries , the English subjunctive mood lost its  raison d'ĂȘtre , and it was firmly set on the road to extinction . But the amazing fact is that the subjunctive still survives  both in British and American English Let us examine the areas where the subjunctive survives in modern English.

1  While expressing orders , requests  recommendations etc the subjunctive mood , that is , special verb forms as distinct from those in indicative mood , is used in the that-clause in complex sentences .


a0He demands that everyone obey him

b) Our teacher recommends that everyone learn French .

c)I request that she be more kind to the children .

Note that indicative verb form with -s ending is avoided and this signals subjunctive mood

2 While expressing wishes desires etc subjunctive mood is widely used in English

a  I wish he were my son

b Would that I were young 1! Note the use of subjunctive verb form were in the place of indicative was

Subjunctive mood is used in set expressions  like

a God save the Queen!

b God be with nyou!

c God bless you.

d So be it .

e Till death do us part .

3 In conditional sentences expressing a hypothetical situation  subjunctive mood is still used

a If I were you , I wouldn't do it .

b If he were rich , she would marry him .

4 In unreal past (the use of past tense form of verbs for expressing contrary -to- fact situations)  the verb form used is really past subjunctive , though it is not distinguishable from past indicative . This is borne out by the use of were( , past subjunctive instead  of past indicative was in sentences expressing unreal past .

 If I stole her car , I would be jailed .

In this sentence stole is really past subjunctive of steal  , though it is indistinguishable from past indicative  But when it comes to the verb be ,  were (past subjunctive ) is the preferred form as in "If I were you , I wouldn't do it"

It is clear that subjunctive mood is in not likely  to go from the English language . It has come to stay ,. now overtly , now covertly ; now obviously , now subtly . It seems the sun will never set on it . English is slowly returning to its Germanic ancestry . It is a good sign .  It has no need to shine in Gallic feathers anymore! .The loss of subjunctive mood has  already taken its toll. English has become poorer for the loss of this mood . Look at the following quotations 

'I f Pope be not a poet , where is poetry to be found ?"Dr. Johnson

"That we  may bring , if need arise
no maimed or worthless sacrifice " ( Rudyard Kipling)

The use of subjunctive in these above quotes speaks for itself . Every user of English  must have wished to use a conditional sentence using subjunctive be   instead of the indicative is to express a certain shade of meaning .Dr Johnson uses  the subjunctive be and the indicative is/are to express different shades of meaning.   But  this option  is not available in present-day English.A language becomes poor when it becomes incapable of expressing  subtle shades of meaning . No wonder , English has ceded its place to French as the most accurate of modern languages ! .
Let us hope that  English will not allow   the subjunctive mood , or what  is left of it , to  perish !

Thank you for visiting

Prof V. P. Rajappan"