Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Subjunctive 2

The Chicago Manual of Style has a useful account of the subjunctive:

The subjunctive mood expresses an action or state not as a reality but as a mental conception. Typically, this means that the subjunctive expresses an action or state as doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional, or otherwise contrary to fact. (CMS 5.114)

So one can see how it might be useful in academic writing. CMS (5.127) offers a couple of examples of the difference between the indicative and subjunctive mood:

If I am threatened, I will quit. (Indicative)
If I were threatened, I would quit. (Subjunctive)

Here the threat is much more real (though still hypothetical) in the indicative mood. It is closer to: "Don't threaten me. I'll quit." The subjunctive mood could be used in a situation where, for example, the speaker does not expect to ever be threatened, but is, say, empathizing with someone who has been.

Here's the other example (I have added a "will" in the example of the indicative):

If the canary sings, I will smile. (Indicative)
If the canary were to sing, I would smile. (Subjunctive)

Here the canary is more likely to sing in the indicative mood. Indeed, the subjunctive could be used as a kind of sigh (I'm not smiling because the canary won't sing), whereas the indicative is almost a challenge (if you want me to smile, get the damned canary to sing).

We can easily imagine examples in management writing:

If this does not happen, company managers will find themselves without influence. (Indicative)
If this did not happen, managers would have no influence on such events. (Past Subjunctive)

The "past subjunctive" is not a tense but a grammatical form. In this case, we are not talking about whether something did or did not happen in the past. The subjunctive is here being used to talk about something that always happens, i.e., something that is part of the nature of organizing, something managers can count on happening. That is, in reality it always happens, but for the purpose of this sentence we need a mental conception of what would happen if it were otherwise.

By contrast, the indicative mood presents the possibility that something really will fail to happen and, if it does (i.e., fails to happen), this will have negative consequences for management. I have to admit, the more I look into it, the less I am able to understand grammarians and linguists who imagine that English will one day be entirely without a subjunctive mood.

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