Essay on the subjunctive debacle
Tworek 1 Bobbi Tworek Dr. Erica Benson English 325.001 6 May 2008 Your Wish is My Command: The Subjunctive Debacle Inflected languages possess an interesting element known as mood, which is defined as a form or forms of a verb that indicates certain expressions of that verb, be it a statement of fact, a command, conditionality, et cetera. In the English language, there are said to be five principal moods: indicative, imperative, interrogative, optative, and subjunctive (“Mood” OED def. 1a). While the first four remain stable, within the last two hundred years there has risen a certain level of uncertainty regarding the last of these five. Having become increasingly indistinct in inflection from the other moods, the subjunctive, which denotes “an action or a state as conceived (and not as a fact) and therefore used to express a wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical, or prospective event”, has been questioned in its current prevalence of usage (“Subjunctive” OED def. A1b). This uncertainty is understandable; human emotional complexities often blur wishes and commands, doubt and certainty, and reality with the unreal. Perhaps most notably, without a distinct inflectional ending, the subjunctive is easily confused with the imperative and the indicative moods in phrases such as “I hope that you plan to take out the garbage soon”. The person being addressed may answer, “that’s nice” and subsequently do nothing, which may result in a clarifying, “I said, Do it!” response. Both parties have a viable argument. Thus, without a prominently distinct inflection, many grammarians are led to question or even deny its prevalence and/or continued existence altogether (Jespersen 1905, Fowler 1926, Tworek 2 Baugh 1935, Vallins 1956, cited in Finney 2007). And, while there are many who do acknowledge modern day usage of the subjunctive, they often point only to surviving inflected forms (Nichols 1987, McGillivray and McMann 2007). However, even if the archaic subjunctive inflection were to die out completely, as some suggest, it would be impossible to deny the existence of the subjunctive mood in modern speech. This mood stands for distinct human thought and feeling that cannot be incorporated by the implied meanings of any other mood. To deny the existence of the subjunctive is to deny the existence of the basic human sentiments that it represents. Therefore, even without a distinct inflection, human necessity has indeed devised alternative means of expression. Through an historical and linguistic analysis, it can be found that, having abandoned a bound morpheme, the subjunctive thrives in modern-day English through free-form expression. The subjunctive mood developed during the Old English period, was widely used, and possessed markedly distinct bound morphemes. The inflectional endings used to denote the subjunctive were –e for singular and –en for plural (Vallins 29-30 cited in Finney 2007). These endings, however, proved to be the demise of the subjunctive through the course of the Middle English period. Although no definitive answer can be given as to the cause, one of the most influential changes of the English language was the loss of a vast majority of inflection. The subjunctive had little chance of escaping that trend due to a phonological change that was also underway: the reduction of all unstressed final vowels to the schwa (Millward 163-5). With the loss of its final vowel, the subjunctive became increasingly difficult to distinguish, especially from the indicative. It was then distinct only where the indicative had managed to maintain its inflection, mainly in the third-person present singular (Vallins 29-30 cited in Finney 2007). It Tworek 3 was this ambiguity that would eventually lead to such debate and confusion among the up and coming linguistic scholars. The quiet and mysterious subjunctive found itself under scrutinous grammarian criticism at the start of the Early Modern era. It was during this time that English speakers began to notice differences in their own speech. The aspiring middle class, subconsciously sensitive to the influence of sociolinguistic variables, was the first to see the need for separating the “proper” from the “improper”. Thus, increasing popular desire to “cleanse” and “reform” the English language sparked demands for some set grounds rules, resulting in a surge of grammar books (Millward 242-3). When it then came time for grammarians to define the subjunctive mood and its usage, some serious complications arose. Published opinions varied greatly and scholars of the time appear to have lacked even so little as a general agreeance on the matter. Ben Jonson, for example, addresses the subjunctive in his notes on grammar and describes it as a plural, saying that some nouns, though singular, “require a verb plural – especially when the verbe is joined to an adverbe, or conjunction: It is preposterous to execute a man, before he have been condemned” (Vallins 29-30 cited in Finney 2007). Bullions’ forty-first edition of Grammar, published in 1857, calls the subjunctive “an ellipsis of the future tense” and considers it to only exists in the present tense, with the exception of be. Allen and Hawkins’ Grammar, from 1906, states that the “imperative subjunctive” is used for giving commands not in second person, providing the example, Sit we down. They also use Let one come, let all come to exemplify the imperative, whereas House and Harman cite Come one come all to be the subjunctive (Cannon 16). Tworek 4 Just a handful of texts such as these clearly illustrate the identity crisis scholars inflicted on the subjunctive mood during Early Modern English. The debate is made evident, but none thus far allude to any developing resolution. However, one of the more compelling observations of this era comes from Joseph Priestly. In 1761, long before the other previously noted grammarians, he published The Rudiments of English Grammar (Millward 244). In this descriptive approach, Priestly notes: “This form of the conjunctive subjunctive tenses is very little used by some writers of the present age; though our forefathers paid a very strict and scrupulous regard to it. It seems to be used with propriety only when there is implied some doubt or hesitation.” He continues on with a “familiar example”: We shall overtake him though he run, to be used when it is not known whether he did run or not. However upon seeing him run, Priestly points out that “we should say, We shall overtake him though he runneth…” Priestly then comments on the irregularity of the word run in the former example: “may we not suppose that the word run is in the radical form [infinitive] requiring regularly to be preceded by another verb expressing doubt or uncertainty, and the intire sentence to be, We shall overtake him though he should run? Priestly’s observations are interesting because they are the first to allude to the modal quality of the subjunctive mood, the focus of current debate. The development and popularity of modals came about during the Middle English period, the same time the subjunctive verb form was losing ground due to lost inflection. Some scholars, such as Roberts, deny any affiliation between the two whatsoever, stating that modals “do not…even generally express subjunctive ideas” (cited in Cannon 12). However, most are willing Tworek 5 to acknowledge a relationship between the concurrent rise of modals and fall of subjunctive inflections. It is, in fact, the nature of this relationship that proves to be the source of continuing subjunctive debate. On one side of the argument, modals are considered to be the replacement of the subjunctive; it, therefore, no longer exists in Modern English. In his textbook entitled, The Biography of the English Language, Millward seems to ascribe to this position. He asserts that auxiliaries and quasi-modals began to replace the subjunctive in Middle English, however it was still used widely in other instances (185). In later chapters, he continues on this same theme stating that in Early Modern English, the inflected subjunctive was still used for uncertainty, wishes, conditions and contrary-to-fact statements, however, by the Modern English era, modals, quasi-modals, and the indicative came to replace virtually all inflected subjunctive verb forms (275). Others, such as Curme, have taken a stand in defense of the subjunctive. These scholars maintain that, instead of replacing the subjunctive, said modals and quasi-modals, along with the indicative, have assumed the role of denoting the subjunctive, allowing speakers to express themselves more clearly; the rise of modals can be seen as resulting from the necessity to expand the subjunctive mood, not to abolish it. In his text, Syntax, published in 1931, Curme supports this claim and urges that modals be “treated as our modern subjunctive forms” and believes them to be “the modern way of expressing an attitude that did not die with the loss of distinctive inflectional endings” (cited in Cannon 12). It is this last phrase: an attitude that did not die with the loss of distinctive inflectional endings that provides the greatest stronghold for the persistence of the subjunctive in Modern Day English. The subjunctive covers such a broad range of meanings, including statements of non-fact, wishes, doubts, requests, beliefs, demands, and likelihood, among others, that, as Tworek 6 Curme stated, it became necessary to distinguish them from each other, bringing about the already existing modals to do the job. The loss of inflection – a result from the natural evolution of the English language – does not imply the loss of the idea expressed by that inflection; the subjunctive can live without them. None of the four remaining moods: indicative, imperative, interrogative, nor optative, are able to substitute that which is denoted by the subjunctive conditionality. Human beings, by nature, will never cease to have subjunctive thoughts, nor will the necessity to express them ever disappear. Due to the innate ‘subjunctiveness’ of human thought, it is clear that, inflection or no inflection, the subjunctive mood remains in wide use in Modern English. Curme exemplifies this point further with the archaic subjunctive sign is to. In this case, the incorporation of various modals well illustrates the added clarity they bring to archaic subjunctive forms. Take, for example, the following statements: 1) The assignment is to [i.e. must] be handed in by Friday. 2) Your weekly work schedule is to [i.e. can] be found online. 3) Well-behaved pugs are to [i.e. should] be praised daily. The meanings that are implied by can, would and should are easily denoted by is to in each of these three sentences (Curme 397). Therefore, it is not clear which of these fine shades of meaning is being implied. However, when a different modal with distinct meaning substitutes the one-size-fits-all is to, the intended meaning becomes unmistakably clear. Curme also notes that the modern day usage of modals helps to “color” the language and adds that what English lost in brevity with the old subjunctive, it gains in clearness and concreteness of expression (392-93). The present subjunctive forms may, shall, can and will, for Tworek 7 example, are used alongside their past tense counterparts, although both refer to the future (396). The difference is that using the past form softens the statement, adding to the new capabilities of the Modern English subjunctive to provide finely shaded meanings. Take can and could, for example. The statement I can pick you up at 4:30 is much more concrete than I could pick you up at 4:30. Further evidence for the continued existence of the subjunctive is provided by McGillivray and McMann. In their online lesson material, modals are used, followed by an infinitive, to translate inflected Old English subjunctive forms into their Modern English equivalents: Forðy ic wolde ðætte hie ealneg æt ðære stowe wæren Therefore I prefer that they always would be at that place (2008). Furthermore, The American Heritage Book of English Usage also acknowledges recent trends in the use of modals. The phrase would have, for example, is cited as being used more often in place of the old subjunctive had in contrary-to-fact clauses such as I wish you would have seen it instead of you had (2006) 1. Beyond the use of modals, the modern day subjunctive can also assume the same form as the indicative. This was acknowledged at least as far back as 1905 when Jespersen, in Growth and Structure of the English Language commented that “most of [the subjunctive’s] forms have become indistinguishable from those of the indicative, but the loss is not a serious one, for the thought is just as clearly expressed…” Jespersen then provided the comparison of if he died to if 1 . It is interesting to note that only 14 percent of the Usage Panel accepts this construction, while a few more of them ,16 percent, do accept I wish you would have told me (“Subjunctive” AH 1.61) Tworek 8 he were dead (cited in Finney 2007). In English Syntax: from word to discourse, Berk provides further support; he explains that the traditional third person subjunctive verb form and the use of be in its infinitive to be “atypical verb forms” that are the “vestiges of the Old English subjunctive system. The same meaning can be communicated by a verb in present tense” (1999 cited in Finney 2007). Therefore, although it may be traditionally correct to say If I were a dog no one would truly think that the person speaking was indeed a dog, even if they said If I was a dog. And, more importantly, both are in the subjunctive form; in the latter, it is the context that serves to clarify the mood. Although some archaic inflected forms of the subjunctive do continue to be used today, they are only a small fraction of the ways in which the subjunctive can be expressed. The subjunctive mood of today is still an evasive one, but evidence of its growth and vitality in Modern English points to its continued free-form existence. The American Heritage Book of English illustrates this point by outlining various trends in its ever-evolving free-form expression. One such trend is the substitution of didn’t for hadn’t in speech. The example provided: If I didn’t have (instead of hadn’t had) my seatbelt on, I would be dead (2006). Another noted trend involving the indicative is the rise of the intrusive have in negative constructions which often appears in conjunction with the verb happen, such as in He would have been in real trouble if I hadn’t have happened to be there. This form is usually corrected out of written English; in speech, have is reduced to hadn’t a (2006). Overall, it is of great importance to understand that the presence of the subjunctive form in Modern English is not that of mere survival, but rather it is a dynamic element of our daily speech, utilized in innumerable utterances. Tworek 9 Taking into consideration all that has been presented, from the history to the modern day usage and with the incorporation of scholarly opinion – however contrasting it may be – it has been made evident to me that the subjunctive form need not be distinct in order to exist in Modern English; my best argument being the old philosophical question: If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it still make a sound? Logic tells me yes. Reaching this conclusion was, in itself, a great learning experience for me. Researching this project was especially interesting because, in the end, I opposed what I had originally stepped up to defend. The subjunctive has always been an area of interest to me because I have been made witness to its pervasive use in other languages. I considered its archaic and dying form in English to be of great importance and vehemently argued for its necessary revival. Therefore, I approached this project as a strong if-I-were advocate and came out of it in chuckling agreeance with the heartfelt words of Fowler: he said that the inflected subjunctives in use today are: “either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness…” (cited in Finney 2007).