The presidential imperfect subjunctive

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A couple of years ago, Nicolas Sarkozy was making news for the idiomatic informality of his language. Now he's made a bit of a stir in the media for using the imperfect subjunctive, a characteristic of formal written style that's apparently rare enough in spoken French that a public figure can make news by using it. (The last example that came to our attention here at Language Log involved the serial killer Michael Fourniret: "Il fallut que j'accusasse: the morphology of serial murder", 3/27/2008).

The evidence in the Sarkozy case is available on YouTube for all to see, courtesy of Jim Jarrassé, «Sarkozy fait des efforts pour se présidentialiser» ("Sarkozy tries to presidentialize himself"), Le Figaro 11/17/2020:

Nicolas Sarkozy a entamé une nouvelle étape dans son quinquennat. Nouveau gouvernement, nouvelle feuille de route, nouveau style aussi. Plus sérieux, plus apaisé, le chef de l'Etat a voulu montrer mardi soir qu'il avait changé et qu'il tenait désormais sa langue. Très critiqué au début de son mandat pour avoir été familier, voire injurieux, il cherche désormais à s'élever, à «habiter» la fonction présidentielle. Les mots qu'il a employés mardi soir étaient à cet effet savamment choisis.

A commencer par l'emploi de l'imparfait du subjonctif. «J'aurais aimé qu'il [Jean-Louis Borloo] restât au gouvernement», a assuré mardi le chef de l'Etat.

Nicolas Sarkozy has entered a new stage in his presidential term. New government, new roadmap, new style as well. More serious, more relaxed, the head of state wanted to show on Tuesday that he has changed and will now mind his tongue. Criticized early in his tenure for being informal and even offensive, he's now trying to elevate himself, to inhabit the presidential function. The words that he chose Tuesday evening were skillfully chosen for this purpose.

To start with, the use of the imperfect subjunctive. "I would have preferred that he (Jean-Louis Borloo) should stay in the government", the head of state assured us on on Tuesday.

It's nice to see that Jean Véronis is continuing his analysis of political (and general) discourse, and that his observations are making it into the mainstream media. The article in Le Figaro leads with a sub-head featuring Jean ("Pour le professeur de linguistique Jean Véronis, le chef de l'Etat a changé radicalement de style lors de son intervention télévisée, mardi soir"), and continues:

«Il fait visiblement des efforts pour se présidentialiser, pour soigner son niveau de langage», analyse Jean Véronis, professeur de linguistique à l'université d'Aix-en-Provence. «Seuls deux hommes politiques utilisent l'imparfait du subjonctif : Edouard Balladur et Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mais, chez eux, c'est naturel. Chez Nicolas Sarkozy, ça ressemble plus à un jeu d'acteur».

"He is making visible efforts to presidentialize himself, to groom his language", suggests Jean Véronis, professor of linguistics at the university of Aix-en-Provence. "Only two politicians use the imperfect subjuntive: Edouard Balladur and Jean-Marie Le Pen. But for them, it's natural. For Nicolas Sarkozy, it's like an actor's performance."

But what I want to know is, who is it that M. le président fixes with a defiant (or at least significant-seeming) glance, off to his left, as he utters the fatal "restât"?



51 Comments

  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    Mark: quinquennat does not mean 'fifth year' but a five-year (presidential) term. "Habiter" is better translated as 'inhabit'. Otherwise, excellent translations from the French.

    [(myl) Oops; fixed now.]

    I have an old memory of the self-consciousness associated with oral use of the imperfect subjunctive from Julien Duvivier's film "Panique" (made in 1947, I probably saw it in the late 50s), in which M. Hire, played by Michel Simon, says, sans que je le susse, and the detective responds, with a smirk, sans que vous le sussiez.

    I have not seen the 1989 remake of the film (Monsieur Hire), based on the same Simenon novel, and I wonder if the same exchange occurs there.

  2. Yakusa Cobb said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    I'm sorry:

    il tenait désormais sa langue

    must be wrong
    Le Figaro must have meant 'il tenait désormais à sa langue, ie 'he was attached to his language' rather than 'he held his tongue.'

  3. marie-lucie said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Coby, I have seen the second but not the first version of Monsieur Hire, and I don't remember this particular episode. The imperfect subjunctive is now so rare that most of the audience might not have recognized the form. [The stem suss- , a form of the verb savoir 'to know', is homophonous with the stem suce of sucer 'to suck'].

    Familier, voire injurieux: you can be informal without being offensive. I think that these terms refer not just to casual speech but to the use of (sometimes offensive) slang.

    apaisé suggests "calmed down" rather than "relaxed" which suggests casualness. He now aspires to project a calm, dignified manner, befitting the role of a president.

    Yakusa, "he held his tongue" is indeed wrong, but I think that tenir" here means "take pains, be careful in using, keep a grip on sthg", like tenir son rang "to behave so as to uphold one's [high] rank". So he now "takes pains to use the language" in a more appropriate manner, resisting the temptation to use overcasual, slangy speech.

  4. Leo said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    As a student of French, I'd like to ask:

    What would be the more colloquial (or "less presidential") way of saying "J'aurais aimé qu'il restât au gouvernement"?

    The present subjunctive, or the perfect, or the conditional perfect…?

  5. Xmun said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    Le Figaro's "«J'aurais aimé . . ." is a mistranscription. He says "souhaité", not "aimé".

  6. nyves said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    Leo, present subjunctive: "J'aurais d'ailleurs souhaité qu'il reste".

  7. Étienne said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    Has there ever been any statistical study of what languages are most discussed on Language Log? Most posts seem rather exclusionary of non-Indo-European languages. Additionally, as a native Francophone myself, it seems that every time the French language is mentioned, there's going to be on the order of six thousand (almost pointless) minor, niggling corrections of the original poster's mostly impeccable French translation. Most internet users come from a position of linguistic privilege, so it's natural that there would be proportionally more discussion about French, Italian, English and so forth where most readers feel comfortable getting down to the nitty-gritty. Then a post comes up on the Enduring Voice Project and there is but one comment…

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    Leo: it would be qu'il reste au gouvernement, i.e. present subjunctive regardless of the tense of the main verb.

  9. Xmun said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    Etienne, what do you expect? Of course we prefer to comment on languages we have some knowledge of, not on those whose very existence we first learn of through a brief YouTube presentation.

  10. A. Marina Fournier said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    I believe that it is Michael FournIER, rather than FournIRER. I may be appalled, as my nom de famille is the same as his, and I should be happy to distance myself, but I found no serial killer whose last name is the one you used.

    My vocabulary in French is rather stunted by the fact that my high school only offered two years of French, and the last two years I took focussed on grammar rather than improving my vocabulary. Peste!

  11. Xmun said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

    It's Michel Fourniret. See Le Monde, 3/11/2008, and doubtless many other sources use the same spelling.

    [(myl) And also in the original 2008 LL post. Sorry for the slip of the fingers in this one.]

  12. Joshua said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    Étienne, I've seen posts on this blog in recent months dealing with languages including Indonesian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Dari/Pashto (one post discussing both languages), some of which generated more comments than this one has so far. Mandarin and Cantonese in particular seem to show up on this blog on a fairly regular basis.

    (By the way, I know both Dari and Pashto are both Indo-European languages.)

  13. Joshua said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    I also know now that there was an extra "both" in that sentence.

  14. iching said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 4:26 am

    Just curious, but how rare is the imperfect subjunctive in spoken French now? How common is the form in current written French and is it used only in high-brow literature or also in newspapers etc? How long ago did it start to die out? Are there some regions where it survived for longer than others? And is there any comparable example of an antiquated grammatical form in English that a politician might resort to in order to sound "presidential"? Actually, here in Australia it is much more usual for a politician to try to do the opposite, in order to sound like one of the "common people", often falling into the same trap of sounding like an actor.

  15. Mark Etherton said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:35 am

    This seems an appropriate moment to recall Alphonse Allais' poem 'L'amour à l'imparfait du subjonctif'.

    Oui, dès l’instant où je vous vis,
    Beauté farouche, vous me plûtes;
    De l’amour qu’en vos yeux je pris,
    Sur-le-champ, vous aperçûtes.
    Mais de quel air froid vous reçûtes,
    Tous les soins que je vous offris!
    Combien de soupirs je rendis?
    De quelle cruauté vous fûtes?
    Et quel profond dédain vous eûtes
    Des gros tourments que je souffris!
    En vain je priai, je gémis.
    Dans votre dureté vous sûtes,
    Mépriser tout ce que je fis;
    Mais un jour je vous écrivis
    Un billet tendre que vous lûtes
    Et je ne sais comment vous pûtes
    De sang-froid voir ce que j’y mis.
    Ah fallait-il que je vous visse,
    Qu’ingénument je vous le dise,
    Qu’avec orgueil vous vous tussiez;
    Fallait-il que je vous aimasse,
    Que vous me désespérassiez
    Et qu’en vain je m’opiniâtrasse,
    Qu’à vos pieds je me prosternasse
    Pour que vous m’assassinassiez!

  16. iching said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 6:32 am

    Heh. "Assassinassiez"!. I love it :)

  17. Thomas said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    @iching: It's vanishingly rare, essentially unused in the spoken language, in newspapers, and in literature. It would only be uses for humor (as in the above), in the most overly formal language, or by politicians who want to show they adhere to some mythical old value system, as when it's used by fascists (Le Pen) or their sympathizers.

  18. Bernhard said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    @Mark Etherton: Beautiful poem, but it's "Qu’ingénument je vous le disse," — isn't it?

    (Nicely the only case in the poem where misspelling easily leads to a present subjunctive.)

  19. Mark Etherton said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    @Bernhard: Indeed it is: an example of the dangers of cutting an pasting without proff-reading.

  20. John Cowan said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    Étienne: It is the millennium-old privilege of anglophones to get French wrong (especially in gender, see Le Mort Darthur), and the equally old privilege of francophones to correct them. Ce qui n'est pas clair est anglo-français.

  21. brdo said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    "Most internet users come from a position of linguistic privilege, so it's natural that there would be proportionally more discussion about French, Italian, English and so forth where most readers feel comfortable getting down to the nitty-gritty"

    There's an interesting ideology behind this, but it's been many years since I left graduate school, so I can't quite make it out. People who understand French, Italian, English "and so forth" are somehow "privileged"? Can you explain?

  22. Keith said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    En réponse à Marie-Lucie qui écrit, le 21 novembre 21 2010 à 15:25 :

    "Familier, voire injurieux: you can be informal without being offensive. I think that these terms refer not just to casual speech but to the use of (sometimes offensive) slang."

    I think that this is almost certainly a reference to Nico's description of the inhabitants of the banlieues as "racaille" that he was going to clean away with a pressure hose.

    However, he used the brand name "Kärcher" (that the French pronounce the same way as they would "car cher"), so maybe a less literal translation would be to talk of "Hoovering up the filth of the ghetto".

    In this way, he was using language in which each word taken in isolation was not vulgar, or slang, but the speech taken as a whole was judged to be insulting to a great many people.

    K.

  23. marie-lucie said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    iching, the imperfect subjunctive is essentially dead in contemporary French, as Thomas observed. It is taught in school in order for students to understand the classics, not to use it themselves. It is quite amazing that Sarkozy used it in his speech: nobody but a handful of pedants would have noticed if he had used the present subjunctive like the rest of the French population. He was obviously bending over backwards in order to counteract his overly familiar, slangy speech and too casual behaviour earlier in his term.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    Beautiful poem

    "Beautiful" is not quite the word. It is a virtuoso performance by a well-known ironist, composed expressly in order to use the not only archaic but cumbersome and now ridiculous-sounding imperfect subjunctive, in between all the clichés of bad love poetry. The "assassinassiez" is the crowning masterful touch, both morphologically and semantically.

  25. Belial said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    One is put in mind of the New Yorker cartoon where an old man says to his baffled grandson, ""My boy, Grand-père is not the one to ask about such things. I have lived eighty-seven peaceful and happy years in Montoire-Sur-le-Loir without the past anterior verb form."

    http://www.cartoonbank.com/1973/my-boy-grand-p+egravere-is-not-the-one-to-ask-about-such-things-i-have-lived-eighty-seven-pea/invt/120461/

  26. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 11:10 pm

    FWIW, What goes on is mostly (To quote, as does Grevisse, Léon Warnant) that there is a "tendency to restrict expression of temporality to the indicative mood, and thus to extirpate it from the subjunctive". (Le Bon Usage, 14th ed., §899(b)H)

    In simpler term: French speakers noticed (sometime around the 17th century) that tense was entirely redundant to use of the subjunctive.

  27. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 12:10 am

    JSG: but this "notice" cannot have been universal, since French writers continued to use it for the next couple of centuries. André Gide was fond of it and put it in the mouths of some of his characters (not ironically).

    In Italian and Spanish, which have the same redundancy, the imperfect subjunctive is nevertheless still alive and well.

  28. Moacir said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    IIRC, the recent movie "Entre les murs" more or less opens with a lesson on the imperfect subjunctive, with the 8th graders more or less getting pissed off that they're forced to learn such an absurd verb form.

    The transcription error was/is extremely jarring… I listened to the clip some three times waiting for the "aurais aimé" only to hear the "restât," thereby knowing it was time to rewind.

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    About that poem by Alphonse Allais: the imperfect subjunctive, as far as I can see, appears only in the last eight lines, and everything up to it is in the simple past, which is almost as dead in everyday speech as the imperfect subjunctive.

    Also, shouldn't dise in the second line of that octave be disse?

  30. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    Another question: since j'aurais aimé is in the perfect conditional, shouldn't Sarko have said qu'il fût resté?

  31. Myra said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    The subjunctive didn't make it through translation. I would have preferred that he have stayed? (The simple past subjunctive, …that he stayed, is not recognizable as such.) Or more elegantly, I would have rather he have stayed.

  32. Belial said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    Having listened to the clip multiple times now, I think there is another mistranscription in the report besides the "aime": Sarkozy has slipped in a "ne" there which makes the sentence even more stilted. If I'm hearing it right he says:

    J'aurais d'ailleurs souhaité qu'il ne restât au gouvernement

    which conjures up an additional archaic flavor to go along with the imperfect subjunctive. Can others confirm what I'm hearing?

  33. Xmun said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    Yes I heard something before "restât" but couldn't be sure what it was. Your "ne" is I'm sure quite right.

  34. lukas said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    "J'aurais souhaité qu'il ne restât au gouvernement" means "I would have preferred that he not stay in government." Which is clearly not what Sarkozy meant to express, but maybe he got caught up in the mess of his archaisms.

  35. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    Keith:

    The speech you refer to was shocking for its content, not its form. There have been other occasions when Sarkozy used slang and offensive language. Telling someone off with "Casse-toi, pauv' con!" was hardly presidential. Even without going that far, his general style in addressing the nation on other occasions was often considered too familiar: "j'vous dis, hein, …". Unlike a lot of Americans, most French people do not wish their president to be someone they would like to "have a beer with".

    Belial, I too heard a very short "n" before "restât". If it is "ne", it is not appropriate with the positive verb "restât". But since Sarkozy seems to be talking extempore, not reading from a text, it could be due to a last-minute change from "qu'il ne partît pas". Alternately, it could be a case of hypercorrection.

  36. Belial said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    Alternately (and I will defer to native speakers on this, though I did write an undergraduate paper once on the use of 'ne' alone), a bare 'ne' there could, if I recall correctly, signify a counterfactual condition, or some previous negative connotation floating in the utterance. If I am misremembering, feel free to correct me.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Coby: since j'aurais aimé is in the perfect conditional, shouldn't Sarko have said qu'il fût resté?

    Not under normal circumstances. The reason is not agreement between the forms, but the timing of the wish relative to the time of the wished-for action.

    Present thought, future action:

    Je sais qu'il restera au gouvernement. (certainty of future action= indicative)
    J'espère qu'il restera … (high expectation of certainty = indicative)
    Je souhaite qu'il reste … (uncertainty = subjunctive)
    Je souhaiterais qu'il reste … (lowered expectation of future action)

    Past thought, action in the relative future:
    Je savais qu'il resterait … (I knew – all the time – that he would stay)
    Je souhaitais qu'il restât (archaic) / qu'il reste (modern)

    J'ai su qu'il resterait (I learned that he would stay …)
    J'ai souhaité qu'il reste (I wished – at one time – that …)

    J'avais su qu'il resterait (I had learned that he would stay)
    J'avais souhaité qu'il restât (archaic) / qu'il reste (modern) (I had wished him to stay)
    J'aurais souhaité """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" (I would have wished …)

    Present thoughts, past action:
    Je sais qu'il est resté … (certainty of past action= indicative) (past)
    J'espère qu'il est resté … (high expectation of certainty of past action)

    Je souhaite qu'il soit resté … (uncertainty that action did occur already)

    Past thought, action anterior to the thought:
    J'ai su qu'il était resté (I learned that he had stayed)(past certainty)

    For a past wish that an action would have already occurred before the epression of the wish, the following are grammatically possible although restricted as to their possible contexts:

    J'ai souhaité qu'il soit resté ("I wished that he had (already) stayed" – but I know he had not)(past wish, action did not occur)

    J'aurais souhaité qu'il fût/soit resté ("I would have liked for him to have (already) stayed – but he had not by the time I expressed the wish")

    Part of the problem with these two sentences is that "rester" is a stative, not active verb, and therefore not very compatible with the implication of anteriority . "J'aurais souhaité qu'il fût déjà parti" (I would have liked for him to have left already) , with an active verb, is less problematic.

  38. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    Belial: a bare 'ne' there could, if I recall correctly, signify a counterfactual condition, or some previous negative connotation floating in the utterance.

    In this particular case, the connotation is linked to the semantics of the verb of the main clause:

    Je souhaitais/j'aurais souhaité qu'il restât/reste "I wished/would have wished for him to stay" (positive connotation of souhaiter, so "ne" is ungrammatical with the verb denoting the wished-for action)

    but

    Je craignais qu'il ne restât/reste "I feared that he would stay" (negative connotation of craindre, therefore "ne" is used before the verb denoting the dreaded action)

  39. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    lukas: "J'aurais souhaité qu'il ne restât au gouvernement" means "I would have preferred that he not stay in government."

    Sarkozy's sentence is ungrammatical. If he had meant "I would have preferred that he not stay in government", he would had said J'aurais souhaité qu'il ne restât pas au gouvernement. I agree that "maybe he got caught up in the mess of his archaisms".

  40. lukas said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    Sarkozy's sentence is ungrammatical.

    I thought it was merely very archaic rather than ungrammatical, but I will defer to you on that.

    I can't quite make out the "ne" though, to me it seems more like he is pronouncing the l in qu'il restât very carefully. If he had really used the ungrammatical form, surely the French press would be unable to resist mentioning this?

  41. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    lukas: it seems more like he is pronouncing the l in qu'il restât very carefully.

    Lukas, I think you are on to something!

    I listened again to the clip, and just before "j'aurais souhaité", he says that Borloo is "un homme de très grande qualité", and the /l/ in "qualité" sounds almost like an [n]. It may be a quirk of Sarkozy's pronunciation that his /l/'s are slightly nasalized, so his "qu'il restât" sounds almost like "qui n(e) restât (which would be ungrammatical here). Given that he is watching his language and enunciating carefully, if he said "qu'il ne restât" we would hear both an [l] and an [n], not just one sound, and the [n] would be followed by the schwa of ne. So Sarkozy is not getting mixed up after all.

    Congratulations!

  42. iching said,

    November 24, 2010 @ 6:47 am

    I have been trying to think of the best equivalent in English to convey the same sense of archaism as Sarkozy's use of the imperfect subjunctive in French. How about… (He was no longer in the government). I would that he were!

    I assume that the last sentence is an example of the subjunctive in English and the 1st person pronoun could be dropped to become simply: Would that he were!.

    Question: In your neck of the English-speaking woods does this sentence sound A. ungrammatical, B. grammatical but old-fashioned, C. grammatical but ridiculously archaic, D. elegant, statesmanlike and a vote-winner or E. none of the above?

    Any other suggestions for politicians who want to woo the electorate with their mastery of the English language?

  43. Vocabulinks - NYTimes.com said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    [...] Language Log Noting that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was criticized for his use of informal language at the start of his term, Mark Liberman wrote: "Now he's made a bit of a stir in the media for using the imperfect subjunctive, a characteristic of formal written style that's apparently rare enough in spoken French that a public figure can make news by using it." [...]

  44. iching said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

    Regarding the subjunctive in the English language, can someone shed light on a confusion of mine?

    1. If I be king, you shall/will be my queen.
    2. If I were king, you would be my queen.

    Some sources seem to suggest that I be is a present subjunctive form and I were is past subjunctive, but that doesn't seem right to me. Surely they can both refer to the present, and in 1. even to the future, or maybe tense is irrelevant. Why do I pair be with shall/will be and were with would be? Pairing be with would be and were with shall/will be doesn't sound right to me.

    Am I right? And what is the difference in meaning between 1. and 2.?

    N.B. Googling the phrase "If I were king" turns up a line from the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe: "If I be king, not one of them shall live".

  45. John Cowan said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    iching: The terms present and past in connection with the subjunctive mood represent the historical use of the two forms, but they are no longer relevant to their current use. In particular, your example 1 is now archaic. Huddleston & Pullum now use the terms subjunctive and irrealis respectively, and the German analogues are called Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II.

  46. iching said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 2:50 am

    @John Cowan: Thank you for your helpful response.

  47. Keith said,

    December 2, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Ah, yes, Marie-Lucie…. "Casse-toi, pauv' con!" was at the Salon de l'Agriculture, was it not? I had forgotten about that little outburst.

    As for Sarko inserting a "ne" in his phrase, maybe this counts as a hypercorrection.

    He may have been trying to construct his phrase on the model of "avant que + subj + ne + subjunctive" (e.g. "avant qu'il ne vienne").

    K.

  48. Nick said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    1. If I be king, you shall/will be my queen.
    2. If I were king, you would be my queen.

    "If I be king, you will be my queen" is considered in Modern English to be either stiffly formal or even archaic, much like the French imperfect subjunctive discussion above. (Modern-if I am) It means that there is a possibility that he might become king in the future and, if so, you will be his queen.

    "If I were king, you would be my queen" is still correct, albeit, formal English. It is the English past/imperfect subjunctive and it means that the statement just made is imaginative, contrary-to-fact, and utterly not true. I am not the king, but, in another world, I imagine I WERE king, and, in this world, I would make you my queen.

    The imperfect subjunctive, better known as the past subjunctive in English, is used to talk about what is not real in the present and sometimes the near future, although the purported future subjunctive is used normally in this case and it is far more common than the straight imperfect subjunctive. It conjugates with past subjunctive of "to be" + infinitive of future verb= future subjunctive. Example below.

    "If I were to be king, you would be my queen." (In the future of my imaginary world, I imagine that I were to be king one day; therefore you would be my queen.)

    The present subjunctive after "if" or other conjunctions is not seen or heard too much anymore and many people believe it to be a subject-verb agreement error when seen. Examples in formulaic sayings:

    If truth be told
    Until death do us part
    Be that as it may (inverted subjunctive "if that be as it may")
    whether it be
    Be it (inverted subjunctive)
    So be it (let it be so/it shall be so)

  49. Nick said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    The best of both worlds is to say, "If I should be king,…"; thereby saving the subjunctive, but not sounding overly archaic. Even better, invert it: "Should I be king,…"; then you sound just formal. It's semantics, though, really, in the end. It's best if one not worry over spilt milk. lol there's the present subjunctive "one not worry".

  50. Nick said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    The terms present and past subjunctives don't have anything to do with time, but merely how analogous they are to their indicative forms, which do deal with time. You pair "be" up with shall/will because the conditional sentence is talking about a real future possibility whereas, with "were", you use "should/would" because these are not only shall/will's conditional forms, but they are their subjunctive forms, too and you are talking about a contrary-to-fact condition.

    If it be wrong, I shall find out. (future prediction)-present subj.
    If it were wrong, I should find out. (present fiction)-past subj.
    If it were to be wrong, I should find out. (future fiction)-future subj. (most widely used subjunctive form in modern English is the future)

  51. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » The presidential imperfect subjunctive [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 11:35 pm

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