Subjunctive(?): not critical that

JAMES A. LANDAU Netscape. Just the Net You Need. JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Sat Mar 22 19:36:48 UTC 2008

Various ADS-L members have contributed the following to this thread:

>  > A practical reason for retaining the subjunctive is the fact that
>  > other languages have it or an equivalent. These foreign subjunctives
>  > are difficult to grasp, even when you're an active user of the English
>  > subjunctive, which itself can be difficult to grasp, as this thread
>  > shows.
> So if using the English subjunctive doesn't help with foreign subjunctives,
>  then what is the practical reason for retaining the English subjunctive?
>Well, to keep sentences like the following from falling together:
>     She insists that he take his medicine.
>     She insists that he takes his medicine.
>among other reasons.
>Don't everybody agree that it don't be no reason for not even no
>(pswaydo-)standard in English.

Spanish is a language that takes the subjunctive seriously.  How seriously?  My high school Spanish teacher had us spend several weeks studying nothing but the subjunctive, ending with the longest take-home exam I have ever had.  It was at the end of those weeks that I first felt that I spoke Spanish, because I could now say so much more than before the exercise started.

An example, from Garcia Lorca  “Aunque sepa los caminos, yo nunque llegare a Cordoba”.  (“Even though I may know the roads, I shall never arrive at Cordova”).  The verb “sepa”, which I rendered above as “may know”, is in the subjunctive.  By using this form of the verb, Garcia Lorca was able to suggest something quite different from an indicative “Even though I *am* familiar with the roads, I shall never arrive at Cordova”.

What purpose does the subjunctive serve in Spanish?
1.      setting the, uh, mood of a would-be or false-to-fact statement
2.      (much less often) making explicit whether the speaker is speaking factually or counter-factually.

“She insists that he take his medicine.” is subjunctive in that he apparently refuses or forgets or something to take medicine.  “She insists that he takes his medicine” is factual, in that she is stating that taking medicine is an action he actually performs.

The problem in English is twofold.
1.      the subjunctive in English is so vestigial that most people simply won’t recognize the difference in meaning between “that he take” and “that he takes”.
2.      the subjunctive only differs from the indicative in the singular.  “She insists that they take their medicine”---is that indicative or subjunctive?

Hence I say that the so-called “subjunctive mood” in English is not a true subjunctive but rather a grammatical idiosyncracy which is rarely used to distinguish two moods of a verb, and should be referred to as a “pseudo-subjunctive”.

How then does an English speaker express what a Spanish-speaker would use the subjunctive for?  By using the aspects of the English verb.  The true subjunctive in English can be expressed in some contexts by using the “may” and “might” aspects of the verb: “even though I *may know* the roads” or by using the emphatic/negative aspect, “She insists that he does take his medicine” as opposed to using other aspects “She insists that he should take his medicine” or “She insists that he must take his medicine”.  This use of aspect also works in the plural:  “She insists that they do take their medicine” as opposed to “She insists that they must take their medicine”.

Adverbs can also be used: “She insists that he really takes his medicine” versus “She insists that he better take his medicine.”

           James A. Landau
           test engineer
           Northrop-Grumman Information Technology
           8025 Black Horse Pike, Suite 300
           West Atlantic City NJ 08232 USA

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