Monday, April 07, 2008

The Subjunctive

If that be foolish ... ah, I see you smile at that use of the subjunctive. I confess my weakness for that mood and for fine speech in general. A weakness that I criticize in myself, believe me. I am aware that an addiction to silk underwear does not necessarily imply that one's feet are dirty. Nonetheless, style, like sheer silk, too often hides eczema. My consolation is to tell myself that, after all, those who murder the language are not pure either.

Albert Camus, The Fall

My cousin speaks a lot of languages. He recently suggested to me that, while there is no way around it in French and Spanish, hardly anyone understands the subjunctive in English. I told him I would try to write a post on it, only to discover, of course, how hard that will be. But I'm going to give it a shot, and I'll devote this week's posts to grammar and linguistics. I note that Jonathan Mayhew has written quite a bit under this label at Bemsha Swing. has the American Heritage Book of English Usage available for free. Here's what is says about the subjunctive. The subjunctive mood "is used chiefly to express the speaker’s attitude about the likelihood or factuality of a given situation". The indicative mood is used when something just is the case; the subjunctive mood is used when something may or should be the case.

"If that be foolish ..." begins Clamence in Camus' The Fall, but stops to reflect on his own predeliction for "fine speech". Indeed, many people would no doubt say "If that is foolish". The subjunctive here marks the uncertainty of the proposition that it is foolish (to seek the company of intelligent men, in this case). It is the formally correct way to say it.

What about the sentence that ends "an addiction to silk underwear does not necessarily imply that one's feet are dirty"? Given Clamence's desire to be eloquent, why does he not say "that one's feet be dirty"? The answer is that it would be wrong to do so. The difference can perhaps be seen in a situation where the subjunctive would be correct:

Getting into the doctoral programme requires that one's grades be good.

This says that you should have good grades if you want to get into the programme. So "that one's feet be dirty" would be correct if the sentence were trying to say that wearing silk underwear requires you to keep your feet dirty.

The subjunctive, it seems, is of interest to linguists because it falling out of favour. People use it less and less. Sentences like:

Should her summer grades be good enough, she would be allowed to register as a regular student in the fall.

Are being replaced with:

If her summer grades are good enough, she will be allowed to register as a regular student in the fall.

I think the difference between these two sentence actually suggests a defence of the subjunctive mood. The first sentence leaves much more open the question of whether she will even want to register, or whether it would be a good idea for her to do so even if she could.

Have a great Monday. More grammar tomorrow.


mert100 said...

Just realized this was 5 years old..but thanks for this. This was what I was looking for (explanation-wise)

Thomas said...

Any time! Thanks for taking the time to comment.