“Damn the subjunctive!” Mark Twain is alleged to have said. “It brings all our writers to shame”. It’s not clear what Twain’s particular beef was – whether misuse, overuse or underuse. But my question is this: is there a subjunctive? Or is it simply a mythical beast?
Of course, anyone who has struggled with French or Spanish or Latin has struggled with the subjunctive. It is, after all, the iconic grammar McNugget. Here, for example, is Alice Kaplan (1993) on the subject:
The subjunctive has a schoolyard reputation for extreme formality since it’s the last verb form people learning the grammar sequence – second year. I remember my feelings of expertise when I could rattle off my tongue, ‘Il va falloir que je m’en aille’ (I’m going to have to go now), and glide out of the room. The subjunctive is really something else; realm of doubt, desire, fear and trembling before language ( p. 146).
But is there a subjunctive in English? Conventional wisdom says that there is, but it’s a mere relic of its former self. Carter & McCarthy (2006), for instance, have this to say: “The subjunctive mood is a non-factual mood and is very rare in English… The subjunctive occurs only in very formal style. It involves the base form of the verb, with no inflections” (p. 307). Which makes me wonder: if it is uninflected, is it eligible for a label at all – or is it simply a hangover from attempts to describe English grammar in classicist terms?
Crystal (2003) hardly deigns to acknowledge it:
In modern English, the examples which come nearest to the subjunctive occur in ‘hypothetical’ constructions of the type if she were going (cf. if she was going), in certain formulae (e.g. So be it!), and in some clauses introduced by that (especially in American English, e.g. I insist that he go to town) (p. 442).
Just how rare is it? Mindt (2000) has the stats:
Subjunctives are most frequent in fictional texts (c. 0.2 cases per 1,000 words), less frequent in spoken conversations (c. 0.1 cases per 1,000 words), and extremely rare in expository prose (c. 0.02 cases per 1000 words).
Between 70% and 80% of all subjunctives are cases of were. Subjunctives represented by the base form be are very rare. (p.197)
By way of comparison, here (from the same source) are the stats – per 1000 words – for progressive forms and imperatives, compared with the subjunctive – which, remember, is represented predominantly by hypothetical were:
progressive forms imperatives subjunctive fiction 4.8 2 0.2 spoken conversation 5.2 2.8 0.1 expository prose 2.2 0.8 0.02
In an earlier, corpus-based study, Charles Fries (1940) found that the subjunctive was used in fewer than 20% of the contexts in which it might be expected, and, even in American English, there was a preference for constructions with should: I insist that he should go, rather than I insist that he go. Fries concluded (70 years ago!) that “in general the subjunctive has tended to disappear from use” (p. 106).
“And what is the imperfect of the subjunctive?”
They didn’t know. I explained. I wrote il faut que j’aille, and then il fallait que j’allasse. They all laughed.
“Oh lala, old-timey.”
“All right, it’s true that these days people don’t care much about the imperfect of the subjunctive. You’ll come across it in books, and even then not very often. In spoken language, no one uses it. Except very snobby people” (p. 172).
So, has the subjunctive in English suffered a similar fate? Not entirely. It still occurs in some coursebooks. Here, for example, is a panel form a U.S. published advanced text (Finnie, 2003 – click to enlarge):
When, if ever, did you last teach the subjunctive?
Bégaudeau, F. 2009. The Class. NY: Seven Stories Press.
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. 2006. Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crystal, D. 2003. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition). Oxford: Blackwell.
Finnie, R. 2003. Grammar Booster 4. Boston, MA: Heinle ELT.
Fries, C. 1940. American English Grammar. Tokyo: Maruzen.
Kaplan, A. 1993. French Lessons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mindt, D. 2000. An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb System. Berlin: Cornelsen.