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The subjunctive mood (sometimes referred to as the conjunctive mood) is a grammatical mood of the verb that expresses wishes, commands (in subordinate clauses), and statements that are contrary to fact.
The subjunctive mood in English
W. Somerset Maugham said that "The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible." An alternative view is that the subjunctive mood remains an ordinary working feature of English grammar, but that it is called moribund because it is often indistinguishable from the ordinary present indicative.
The English present subjunctive is formed by the third person singular inflection of a present tense verb, minus its distinctive -(e)s. So if she thinks is the present indicative mood of the verb to think, the subjunctive is she think. . . Older texts that use the archaic pronoun thou form the present subjunctive by dropping the corresponding ending -(e)st.
The subjunctive is most distinctive in the verb to be. Here, there is not only a present subjunctive — be — but also a past subjunctive, were. Since other English verbs have a single universal past form (I sat, s/he sat, we sat, ye sat, they sat), they do not need to single one form out as a separate past subjunctive (the way 'to be' singles out 'were' among all its forms). Historically, the only place where the past subjunctive was distinguished from the past indicative, in Early Modern English, is in the second person singular. Hence, indicative thou sattest, but subjunctive thou sat. This usage was eroding even then, however.
The subjunctive mood is used in English in a number of different ways.
Stock phrases and clichés
The subjunctive mood is used in a number of fossil phrases that are perhaps no longer felt as inflecting the verb in a particular way:
- as it were. . .
- be that as it may. . .
- (God) bless you!
- come what may. . .
- (God) damn it!
- Far be it from me. . .
- God save our gracious Queen; long live our noble Queen. . .
- Heaven forfend. . .
- so be it
- suffice it to say. . .
- woe betide. . .
- Let there be light.
The subjunctive regularly appears in subordinate clauses, almost always a that clause, after verbs of commanding or requesting:
- I move that the bill be put to a vote.
- I demand that Napoleon surrender!
- It is necessary that classes be cancelled.
This use of the subjunctive remains lively in all varieties of English, so that a sentence like *I demand that Napoleon surrenders would be perceived by many as a solecism. However, British English prefers to structure this sentence with should: I demand that Napoleon should surrender.
This usage of the subjunctive is called for whenever the situation described by the verb is "hypothetical", whether wished-for, feared, or suggested; the common thread is that the situation is not the current state of affairs.
Thus the song from Fiddler on the Roof celebrates the word If in an extended hypothetical, marked by subjunctive mood, for example:
- "If I were a rich man, ... There would be one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down." — Tevye the milkman
Some linguists call this use of the subjunctive the irrealis. This is the sense in which some claim that the subjunctive in English is moribund. This subjunctive can occur with or without a word like if or whether that specifically marks a phrase as hypothetical. When if is omitted, an inverted syntax is usually used:
- Were I the President ...
- If I were the King of the world...
- Be he alive or be he dead ...
- If I were the President ...
In most varieties of English, this subjunctive can be replaced by an indicative when the if form is used:
- If I was the President ...
- If I was you...
Such usage is commonplace, but is perceived as erroneous in formal or educated speech and writing. In so-called contrary to fact or hypothetical scenarios such as these, the use of the subjunctive were is most assuredly warranted.
The unmarked, inverted syntax form — *Was I the President ... — does not occur. However, inverted syntax in itself can be the sign of a subjunctive with a few common verbs other than to be:
- Had we but world enough, and time ...
- Come tomorrow, I will be on that plane.
The unmarked subjunctive begins to appear in the sixteenth century, and since that time has expanded until it is at least as common as the marked forms. Some use the marked form even in the absence of a hypothetical situation — He was asked if he were cold — simply as a conditioned variant that follows if and similar words. This is a hypercorrection.
Another use of the hypothetical subjunctive occurs with the verb "wish":
- I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener.
This, too, is often replaced with the unmarked form.
This subjunctive is not uniform in all varieties of spoken English. It is preserved in speech, at least, in north central North American English, and in some dialects of British English. While it is no longer mandatory, except perhaps in the most formal literary discourse, the reports of its demise have been exaggerated.
The subjunctive is very rare in received standard British English, and only used in some set phrases and in conditional clauses expressing impossibility. Otherwise, it is replaced by should + bare infinitive.
Thus, in British English:
- I wish I were you. (it is impossible for me to be you)
- I wish I were there. (it is impossible for me to be there, for I am elsewhere during the moment in question)
- If only he were prescient. (it is impossible for him to be prescient)
- I eat lest I should die. (American English: I eat lest I die.) See final clauses.
- They insisted that there should be a proper catering service involved. (American English: They insisted that a proper catering service be involved. or ...that there be...)
In British English, it is considered incorrect to use a negative subjunctive. The sentence He took heed that his boss not see him., while correct in American English, is incorrect in British, where it should be rendered thus: He took heed that his boss might not see him. (or lest his boss should see him). The following stock phrase is common in American English, and is readily understood:
- I wouldn't go there if I were you
- I wouldn't go there if I was you
would be received quizzically by the listener, as if there were something amiss with the speaker.
The subjunctive mood in Romance languages
The subjunctive mood retains a highly distinct form for nearly all verbs in Spanish and Italian (among other Latin languages), and for a number of verbs in French. All of these languages inherit their subjunctive from Latin, where the subjunctive mood combines both forms and usages from a number of original Indo-European inflection sets, including the original subjunctive and the optative mood.
In French, despite the deep phonetic changes that the language has undergone from the original Latin, which include the loss of many inflections in the spoken language, the subjunctive remains prominent, largely because the subjunctive forms of many common verbs are strongly marked phonetically; compare je sais, "I know", with the subjunctive que je sache. (However, regular verbs have subjunctives homonymous with the indicative in most of the persons: j'aime → que j'aime).
Use of the subjunctive is in many respects similar to English:
- Jussive: Il faut qu'il comprenne ça: "It is necessary that he understand this."
- Desiderative: Vive la reine! "Long live the queen!"
In the Romance languages, another widespread use of the subjunctive that English handles differently is to translate a host of desiderative expressions that English would express using the auxiliary verbs let or may. Let there be light! in French, for example, becomes Que la lumière soit!
Also, several formulaic expressions with the word que (in French and Spanish) call for the subjunctive, even though the condition they express is a fact:
- Bien que ce soit mon anniversaire... "Even though it is my birthday..."
- Avant que je m'en aille... "Before I go..."
Modern French scarcely ever uses the past subjunctive, but Spanish does, for example in hypotheticals after si ("if"). (French would use the imperfect in this case.) In such a case, the main clause is in the conditional mood.
- Si yo fuese el rey, cambiaría la ley. "If I were the king, I would change the law."
It also uses the past subjunctive in parallel with its jussive use in the present tense:
- Es necesario que hable. "It is necessary that he speak."
- Era necesario que hablara. "It was necessary that he speak."
In Spanish, the subjunctive (subjuntivo) is used in conjunction with expressions of emotion, opinion, or viewpoint. It also is used to described situations that are considered unlikely or are in doubt, as well as for expressing disagreement, denial, or wishes.
In the present tense, the verb endings in the indicative are reversed: -ar endings for -er and -ir verbs, and -er endings for -ar verbs.
(examples: hablar, comer, escribir)
|Èl, ella, usted||hable||coma||escriba|
|Ellos, ellas, ustedes||hablen||coman||escriban|
The subjunctive in Indo-European
The reconstructed, hypothetical Proto Indo-European language, proposed parent to English and the other Germanic languages as well as the Latinate Romance languages, the Slavic languages, and several other language families, had two closely related moods that many of the daughter languages combined or confounded: the subjunctive and the optative moods.
In Indo-European, the subjunctive was formed by using the full ablaut grade of the root of the verb, and adding the thematic vowel *-e- or *-o- to the root stem, with the full, primary set of personal inflections. The subjunctive was the Indo-European irrealis, used for hypothetical or contrary to fact situations.
Among the Indo-European languages, only Greek, Sanskrit, and to some extent Old Church Slavonic kept the subjunctive and optative fully separate and parallel. The Latin subjunctive is mostly made of optative forms, while some of the original subjunctive forms went to make the Latin future tense, especially in the Latin third conjugation. In Latin, the *-i- of the old optative manifests itself in the fact that the Latin subjunctives typically have a high vowel even when the indicative mood has a lower vowel; Latin rogamus, "we ask", makes a subjunctive rogemus, "let us ask."
In the Germanic languages, subjunctives are also usually formed from old optatives. In German, subjunctives are typically marked with an -e ending, and often with i-umlaut, showing once more the presence of the *-i- suffix that is the mark of the old optative. In Old Norse, an -i typically marks the subjunctive; grefr, "he digs", becomes grafi, "let him dig". While most of the signs of this suffix have been removed in Modern English, the change from was to were in the modern English subjunctive of to be also marks addition of a vowel sound to the subjunctive form, and as such represents an echo of the Indo-European optative marker of five thousand years ago.
The subjunctive in Arabic
In Literary Arabic the verb in its imperfective aspect (almudāri‘) has a subjunctive form called the mansūb form. It is distinct from the indicative in either ending in -a or dropping the final n:
- 3 sing. masc. yaktubu "he writes / is writing / will write" → yaktuba "he may / should write"
- 3 plur. masc. yaktubūna → yaktubū
The subjunctive is used in that-clauses, after Arabic an: urīdu an aktuba "I want to write". However in conditional and precative sentences, such as "if he goes" or "let him go", a different form of the imperfective aspect, the jussive, majzūm, is used.
In spoken Arabic there remains a distinction between indicative and subjunctive, but there it is not through endings but a prefix. The indicative has b- while the subjunctive lacks it:
- 3 sing. masc. huwwe byuktob "he writes / is writing / will write" → yuktob "he may / should write"
- 3 plur. masc. homme byukotbu → yukotbu
The subjunctive in Hebrew
Final vowels disappeared from Hebrew in prehistoric times, so the distinction between indicative, subjunctive and jussive is nearly totally blurred even in Biblical Hebrew. A few relics remain for roots with a medial or final semivowel, such as yaqūm "he rises / will rise" versus yaqom "may he rise" and yihye "he will be" versus yehi "let him be". In modern Hebrew the situation has been carried even further, with the falling into disuse of forms like yaqom and yehi. In the precative sense, modern Hebrew speakers often prepend the conjunction she- ("that") to mark the verb: hu yavo "he will come" → sheyavo "let him come".
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