S is for Subjunctive

12 06 2011

Il faut que nous allions!

“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).

All of which reminds me of a scene from the award-winning French film Entre Les Murs. Here’s how it is recounted in the English translation of the book (Bégaudeau 2009):

“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.



16 responses

12 06 2011
Mario Leto

I live and teach in Japan, and I’d have to say that the subjunctive is taught quite frequently still, especially in private conversation schools that use a communicative approach to language education (there were over 1,100 such documented enterprises as of 2005). Obligation, advisability, and urgency are not only useful communicative endeavors, but they are also easy to teach and fun to learn. Also consider that most private schools in Japan still have a North American English standard, as opposed to a British one.

12 06 2011

I have to say that reading your post I thought I understood what the subjunctive was but then I read the coursebook explanation and got thoroughly confused. :p

I’ve probably only ever taught it with adult learners as part of structures like ‘If I were…’ and ‘I wish I were…’ (if they count). It did also come up in my work with young learners a couple of years ago – we were watching a film towards the end of the year and one of the charcaters proclaimed ‘so be it’. Some of the kids picked up on it and asked me what it meant so I taught it as a chunk and they took great delight in using the phrase for the final couple of weeks of term (so if one kid trod on another’s foot, they would shrug and say ‘so be it’)! I’m sure it was forgotten a couple of days into the summer holiday.

Never had any other use for it really!

12 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Dave – your confusion is well-founded, since the coursebook extract only deals with what is called the mandative use of the subjective, i.e. the use of the base form with third person singular verbs (which normally would be inflected with -s) in that-clauses that follow certain verbs or adjectives that express commands, recommendations, suggestions etc:

He ordered that Jonathan do a hundred hours unpaid community work
it was important that she ring her parents to let them know not to expect her that day
it’s better that he be someplace where the authorities can keep an eye on him

(examples from Mindt 2000)

Note that, except for the verb to be, it’s only in the 3rd person singular that the subjunctive ‘form’ is obvious. With other persons and numbers it is the same form as the indicative:

the old Frenchman … insisted that I join him in a drink
I would have thought that your pride demanded that you correct my error

There are two other subjunctive categories in English

1. the use of hypothetical were (rather than was): If it were to rain….
2. in formulaic expressions, like So be it!

Here are few more

Come what may…
God save the Queen…
Long live the King!
God help you!
Thanks be to God.
Suffice it to say…
Be that as it may…
Heaven forbid
Far be it from me…
Praise be..
Peace be with you.

Can anyone think of any others?

15 06 2011
Penny Hands

God bless America! Or God bless anything or anyone, come to think of it – you, little children, their souls, etc.

18 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Penny. God bless your cotton socks!

But, re-reading your email I was suddenly struck by your phrase ‘come to think of it’. What is the grammar of ‘come’ there? Is it a another darned subjunctive??

12 06 2011

Hello Subjunctivites! I have never understood the subjunctive. I did it in Latin, but by then my Latin teacher loathed me so publicly and consistently that I couldn’t absorb anything she said being so afraid she was going to ask me something. All I was thinking about was an exit strategy! I passed Latin, however, which makes one wonder how prevalent it is even in Latin! I do teach it (er-hem!) but as a chunk. “If I were you…..” “It’s important that you be on time”, “God save the Queen.” The only people who really care are grammar-holics.

12 06 2011

PS – for some real head-banging stuff, read this! http://tinyurl.com/5trwesy

12 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Strewth! Thanks for that link, Candy. I thought the giveaway phrase was in the last line: “Although the subjunctive seems to be disappearing from the speech of many, its use is still the mark of the educated speaker”. And a number of the references seem to be to prescriptive (not descriptive) grammars. In other words, the writer’s agenda is to resuscitate the subjunctive, now in its death throes, as a prestigious form. Oh lala. Old timey!

But I do need to add (to my reply to Dave above) that, in negative contexts, the subjunctive also asserts its presence, even for plural and 1st and 2nd person verbs:

They recommend that shops not open on Sundays.

However Mindt (2000) finds no examples of negative contexts for the subjunctive in the nearly 250m word corpus he consults.

12 06 2011
J.J. Sunset

Subjunctive-wise, I think that the biggest hurdle for students whose mother tongue is a Romance language is the “cognitive transition” from an essentially inflected system to an analytical one: changing from adding stuff to stuff to collocating stuff with stuff.

Very rarely do I get to reach this kind of finesse in “It was important that she be”. This is one of those chunks that normally diminishes students’ courage to challenge their comfort zone. Conditionals and modality (beware of past modals) seem like a harmless invitation into ZPD territory…

Why am I calling it “finesse”…?

13 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

“changing from adding stuff to stuff to collocating stuff with stuff….”

Nicely put (and a good example of the principle you describe).

I guess that students ‘learn’ the subjunctive collocation (e.g. ‘important that she be’) the way that they learn most things – either by over-generalising another construction (‘important that she was’), producing a non-standard form that may or may not stabilise, or by internalising a prototypical exemplar, in the form of an unanalysed chunk. (“So be it” might be an example, except it’s so idiomatic it doesn’t lend itself to subsequent fragmentation). Think of that other collocational booby-trap “look forward to doing…”, which is almost always overgeneralised as “look forward to do”.

The process is not helped when the target form is variable even in NS production, ‘important that she be’ alternating with ‘important that she was’.

Out of curiosity, I tried to get some comparative figures for these two strings, but came up against a temporary error issue in the COCA corpus. So I went to WebCorp (http://www.webcorp.org.uk/) and entered ‘it’s important that she’ and chose the first 20 examples that were clearly mandative. Eight used subjunctive forms [S]; 12 used indicative forms [I]:

1. First, it is not important that she be confirmed. [S]
2. Second, it might be very important that she not be [S]
3. it is important that she doesn’t lose respect [I]
4. It’s important that she still has role models and [I]
5. it’s important that she know that intercourse isn’t the[S]
6. It is also important that she feel confident that you will [S]
7. and it is important that she understand the significance of commitment [S]
8. she felt it was important that she talk to Winfrey herself and [S]
9. it is more important that she understand and apply what she [S]
10. it was just as important that she not have to do anything [S]
11. It’s important that she knows you love her and [I]
12. It’s very important that she knows how much she means [I]
13. it is important that she feels close to you. [I]
14. it is important that she knows that you think it [I]
15. It’s important that she look a certain way [S]
16. it is important that she and the litter are separated. [I]
17. it is important that she gets access to the information[I]
18. it is important that she is given the support and[I]
19. It’s important that she understands why her expertise must[I]
20. it’s important that she hears it from[I]

Interestingly, there are two examples of subjunctive in negative contexts (#2, #10), contradicting Mindt’s (2000) claim that there is no empirical evidence for this construction.

12 06 2011
Pat Barrett

I’ve always disagreed with this take on the subjunctive in English; I think we just don’t notice it. “was/were” aside (I often use ‘was’ where the mavens demand ‘were’, e.g. “If I was in Florida right now……..”), the subjunctive of lexical verbs occurs often enough; I listen for it and have many examples which I’m planning to put on my blog this summer.

Each year I would run a preference survey in my classes (Mesa, AZ, mixed socio-economically) and would find about half of the students distinguished the subjunctive from the indicative in sentences like “It’s preferable that he come now.” The negative deviates from the usual pattern: “It’s preferable that he not come now.” I think the problem is two-fold: the declarative form is lightly marked: just the lack of the s in only one form, the 3rd person singular and only in the present. Plus many of the triggers of the subjunctive tend toward a higher register e.g. It is preferable that….. as opposed to I really wish you’d…. However, you do hear “It’d be better if he leave now”.

I try to write down the age, socio-economic and educational background of the speaker, etc., but overall, my impression is that the use of the subjunctive is highly variable among people, a sign that it is giving way to modal verbs to express the same notions.

13 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Great that someone is tracking subjunctive use! Using corpora to locate examples isn’t as easy as it might seem – as you say, the forms are lightly marked. Also, the verb arguments are often polysemous. Thus, “she suggested that he go to the police” is a different meaning of ‘suggest’ than “she suggested that he had gone to the police”. Which means you have to do a lot of combing through concordances to weed out the irrelevant examples.

See an attempt of mine to do this, in my response to JJ Sunset above.

12 06 2011

The subjunctive is something which is often thrown into the pot of what is known as ‘formal English’, whatever that is. So it might get taught, for example, as part of a course on formal correspondence. Business letters, then, are appropriate sites for the use of the subjunctive. But is there any correspondence at all between the TEFL notion of a business letter, replete with subjunctives, and the vast majority of business emails actually being written out there? Who knows and, indeed, who cares?

The subjunctive is also thought to be difficult as a grammar item. So let’s chuck it into Advanced English coursebooks while we’re at it. Its usefulness is, once again, neither here nor there. But it’s such a tricky decision: should it come before or after those inversions? I think afterwards. That way, when students are having a drink together after a hard day of classes, they will be able to say things like ‘Hardly had we finished inversions when the teacher insisted that we study the subjunctive.’

Cynical? Me?

13 06 2011

Some say it’s dead while others seem to suffer from acute subjunctivitis?

26 06 2011

Hi Scott!

Great post! The comment I had in mind already came up a little in a couple of your replies, that is, the question that should be asked is not necessarily “Is there a subjunctive in English?”, but “Is the subjunctive still inflected in English?”.

From a functionalist point of view, it doesn’t matter if you say “if he was”/”if he were” or “it’s crucial that he be”/”it’s crucial that he should be”, the modality evoked by the subjunctive is there. That’s why “if they were” is still considered subjunctive even without the verb inflection.

I also thought that this might be a tendency in many languages. You gave some examples from French, and I can tell you that some of the verb inflection is also disappearing from Brazilian Portuguese subjunctive. In the sentence “Do you want me to buy this?”, the standard Portuguese grammar says that, because of the subjunctive, we should say “você quer que eu compre?”, but the version with the indicative verb form is getting more and more common: “você quer que eu compro?”. It is (still) a stigmatized version, but it is getting common.


27 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

“The question that should be asked is not necessarily “Is there a subjunctive in English?”, but “Is the subjunctive still inflected in English?”

That is indeed the question, Ronaldo.

I suppose a follow-up question is: Is the absence of inflection (i.e. zero inflection) a kind of inflection? I.e. in the sentence “I suggested she see a specialist”, is see inflected?

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