Sounding the alarm on the subjunctive

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From the After Deadline blog of Phil Corbett, style guru at the New York Times, comes this 1924 letter to the editor calling for a Congressional investigation into the imperiled state of the English subjunctive:

I suspect that Ida M. Mason's tongue was at least partially in cheek, but her alarmism should be familiar to peevologists. Corbett, in his column, continues to the sound the alarm, saying that "the crisis has only grown," as illustrated by numerous offending examples from the Times itself. If Corbett, who is in charge of the Times style manual, is unable to get the newspaper's writers and editors on board after repeated attempts, then it's clear that efforts to save the subjunctive are even more quixotic than they were in Ms. Mason's day.

(For why "subjunctive" isn't even a good grammatical descriptor for the if I were you construction, see Geoff Pullum's post here and Arnold Zwicky's here, plus more from Mark Liberman here. In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston and Pullum refer to such 1st-singular or 3rd-singular use of were in counterfactual conditionals as "the irrealis form of the copula.")

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84 Comments »

  1. Ross Presser said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Douglas Hofstadter joked that a subjunctive is one step below a junk TV (in one of the dialogues of Goedel, Escher, Bach).

  2. mike said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    Hear, hear! I'm with the subjunctive snoots on this one.

  3. mike said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    Surely the author meant "If the subjunctive mood _were to go_, then all _would be_ lost", right? Haha.

    In any event, while it is admittedly generation-appropriate, the name "Ida" does suggest a certain play on the conditional …

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    My subjective impression is that you get far more peeving about what CGEL calls irrealis were than about subjunctive constructions.

    Given that traditionalists generally treat both as the 'subjunctive mood', why would they care more about examples like If I was the President than ones like It's important that they are there on time? (Or maybe I'm just wrong and they get upset about this too.)

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    The grab bag of other complaints at the end seemed an interesting mix of the sensible and the stupid. Don't ever use "epicenter" metaphorically in a story not actually about an earthquake? Really? But "a woman wielding a many-faceted portfolio of power" probably should have been caught by a decent mixed-metaphor-blocking software package.

    [(bgz) The NYT style guide has some peculiar proscriptions against metaphorical extensions. For instance, it advises that the verb launch is acceptable in "naval and aerospace" contexts, but not "in references to programs, candidacies, careers and other undertakings" (except for military campaigns).]

  6. Dan Hemmens said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Given that traditionalists generally treat both as the 'subjunctive mood', why would they care more about examples like If I was the President than ones like It's important that they are there on time? (Or maybe I'm just wrong and they get upset about this too.)

    I suspect it's because most peevological rules focus on proscribing against small combinations of "wrong" words.

    "If I was" is easily labeled as "wrong" in a way that "it is important that they are there" is not. "If I was" can be wrong a priori, whereas to find fault with "it is important that they are there" you would have to actually know what you were complaining about.

    To put it another way, you can complain about people saying "if I was" rather than "if I were" without having any idea what the subjunctive mood is. Complaining about "it is important that they are there on time" requires you to actually have some idea what you're talking about.

    In this sense subjunctives are almost the opposite of passives – peevologists pick a simple but wholly inaccurate description that makes the construction easy to identify and shame people about. In the case of the passive, this means that complaints happen about a whole lot of things that aren't passives at all, while in the case of the subjunctive it means that people only complain about the construction they can easily identify.

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    The subjunctive cannot be abandoned. Sometimes it is necessary for the meaning. If someone tries to abandon it without understanding the meaning, the meaning gets lost.

    One example is in the Collect for Purity. It begins, "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open". It addresses God, and expresses the wish that all hearts be open to him. Some modern versions begin, "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open". They miss the point, distort the meaning, and express a falsehood.

    A more comic example is the mangling of "God shed his grace on thee" to "God done shed his grace on thee" discussed by Geoff Pullum here.

  8. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    That Ida P. Mason letter has an impressively high cliché density: "those who should know better," "parlous times," "oil on troubled waters," "time-honored conventions," "go by the board."

  9. L said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    > It begins, "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open". It addresses
    > God, and expresses the wish that all hearts be open to him. Some
    > modern versions begin, "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are
    > open". They miss the point, distort the meaning, and express a
    > falsehood.

    Or it might be a translation issue – my Latin is far from sufficient to know: Deus cui omne cor patet…

    While I'm not not a Christian, I think that it's consistent with Christian theology to assert that all hearts are open to God, as all books are open to an omniscient reader. But I could be wrong – I'm usually wrong six time before breakfast.

    (I really should start eating earlier…)

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    @Eric P. Smith: the Collect for Purity in the versions of the BCP used in the United States has had "are open" instead of "be open" since the first post-Revolution edition of 1789, so it's not some kooky modern hostility to traditional language. It's as old a change as substituting "those who trespass against us" for "them that trespass against us" in the Lord's Prayer. Perhaps AmEng was less conservative on this particular usage than BrEng as early as the 18th century, or maybe it's just an arbitrary difference, but generally the non-substantive linguistic changes in the first three American revisions of the BCP (1789, 1892, and 1928 – let's not talk about the more radical version of 1979) were very modest and conservative and generally seem aimed at purging expressions that had become so archaic as to have become stumbling blocks while maintaining the overall aesthetic feel of an archaic-sounding Elizabethan/Jacobean register.

    Given the parallel of "unto whom all hearts are open" to "[unto whom] all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid," there is an entirely plausible reading that the openness of heart refers not to any individual human's subjective "openness" but our inability to hide our true selves from God, much as we might wish to. I wonder if the suggestion of heresy lurking in the non-subjunctive version is misplaced and it is rather the criticism that veers dangerously near heresy by casting doubt on divine omniscience?

  11. Jonathon said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    The domain covered by the subjunctive has been shrinking for literally millennia, but the sky doesn't seem to have fallen yet. I keep waiting for the calamity to strike, but according to these Cassandras, it always seems to be just over the horizon.

  12. L said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    > veers dangerously near heresy

    Us real heretics will have no truck with mere dangerously-near veering.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    I don't recall previously coming across "misrepresentatives" as pejorative wordplay for politicians and the like who would otherwise be called "representatives", but checking google books shows other examples from circa 1920, like "But of late we have been shaken out of this fool's paradise of over-confidence by the tactics of certain of our misrepresentatives who, uncontrolled, would foist upon us a regime of repression that would cause Czar Nicholas to turn in his grave."

  14. Jeff Carney said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

    " from the stylebook: irony, in precise usage, is a restrained form of sarcasm . . ."

    Since when is irony a species of sarcasm? More like the other way around? o.O

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    Eric P Smith: It isn't at all clear that the be in "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open" is a subjunctive. Be could be used as 3rd person plural indicative, as in "Lord, what fools these mortals be," where Shakespeare uses it for rhyming reasons.

  16. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    It is true, nevertheless, that unthinking abandonment of the traditional subjunctive would sometimes lead to a loss of meaning – e.g. it would not be right to change 'The Queen, whom God preserve' to 'The Queen, whom God preserves'.

    Of course there would be ways of rendering this which would more or less keep the meaning, e.g. 'The Queen, whom I hope God will preserve', but these would be more clumsy.

  17. RP said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one),
    What you and Eric Smith both seem to miss that these subjunctives have already been lost, both in the sense that this use of the subjunctive is scarcely productive any more and in the sense that the snippets you quote are liable to be misinterpreted by large numbers of native speakers. ("The Queen, whom I hope God will preserve" is indeed long-winded, but what about "The Queen, may God preserve her" (or indeed "the Queen, God preserve her", which retains a subjunctive is more likely to be correctly understood, if only because sentences of the type "God save the Queen" are probably often reanalysed by native speakers as being imperatives.)

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    The older form of the Collect for Purity with "unto whom all hearts be open" has been used as a base text for translation into dozens of other languages ranging from Ainu to Welsh (no guarantee my quick skim got the whole alphabetical range). Perhaps some of those languages have verbal morphologies marked for mood that would shed light on whether "be" was really understood in context as meaning something different than we would now take "are" to mean in the English original, at least in the minds of whoever was doing the translations at the relevant points in time.

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    The NYT style guide has some peculiar proscriptions against metaphorical extensions. For instance, it advises that the verb launch is acceptable in "naval and aerospace" contexts, but not "in references to programs, candidacies, careers and other undertakings" (except for military campaigns)

    It seems every style guide has its own bizarre peeves when it comes to metaphorical usages. My previous employer's style guide bans the metaphorical usage of originally nautical terms "leeway" and "doldrums", even though the metaphorical usage is far and away the dominant one and most people probably don't even know their origins.

  20. John Walden said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    When teaching colleagues insisted that that "mandative subjunctive" was a soon-to-be-extinct mammoth up to its knees in the tar pits, I had a little bet, which I won, that I could find one in the headlining article of any US online paper they cared to mention.

    And it's repeatable; From the first article on the NYT's current homepage we find:

    "In demanding that Mr. Obama effectively issue an ultimatum to Iran, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to be making maximum use of his political leverage"

    It's fair to say that most British papers would place a "should" or a "must" or the like there.

    One thing I've never understood is the odd insistence that "If I were rich all of a sudden" is/be past subjunctive but "If I became rich all of a sudden" have/has a different name, past or preterite or whatever. Whatever they are, they are the same thing. Irrealis, the contrafactual, does it for me.

  21. David Morris said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    Surely, surely, words like "if" and "wish" sufficiently indicate the "not-real-ness" of the situation without having to mess around with the verb. I have a enough trouble getting students to say "I am/you-we-they are/he-she-it is / I/he/she/it was/you-we-they were" already without adding another rule.

  22. Pflaumbam said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    @ John Walden:

    If I were rich is in competition with If I was rich. No such contrast is available for If I became rich.

    Given that there is only one verb with an alternation in form – and that only in the 1st and 3rd per singular – surely it seems most economical to analyse the [i]were[/i] case as a vestigial mood of the verb to be, and everything else as the preterite tense being used to mark modal remoteness.

  23. Doug Harris said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

    Half a century ago, when I was a copy boy at the Louisville Times, I was an avid reader of an occasional periodical produced within the NYT organization on grammar issues. 'Anyone know what ever happened to that?

  24. GeorgeW said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

    @Ginger Yellow: ". . . nautical terms "leeway" and "doldrums", even though the metaphorical usage is far and away the dominant one and most people probably don't even know their origins."

    At some point don't we cross a line where what was originally a metaphor becomes the basic meaning?

  25. Eric P Smith said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

    “Unto whom all hearts be open” – I may have been just plain dead wrong. Certainly the Latin “cui omne cor patet” is indicative: the subjunctive would be “pateat”.

    I would not cast doubt on divine omniscience: God can see into our hearts, and so our hearts are open to him in that sense. But we are exhorted to invite God into our hearts, and so our hearts are not a priori open to him in that second sense. Indicative and subjunctive now both speak to me in those different senses. Thank you L, J.W. Brewer and Coby Lubliner.

  26. Steve Morrison said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

    Surely the author meant "If the subjunctive mood _were to go_, then all _would be_ lost", right?

    Were I a peever, then had I found some much more pedantic way to phrase it.

  27. J. Goard said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    (Months?) after the 9/11 attacks, my folks and tons of neighbors had put up these little posters, with a mashup of two patriotic songs into what for me was a train wreck of mismatched tense and person.

    They read:

    God bless America
    and shed His grace on thee

    For me, the first line is processed as an imperative and the second as a past tense indicative. And, naturally, I always took the following line of "America the Beautiful" to have the matching past tense form crowned rather than the actual crown. I ended up consciously appreciating the subjunctive from that poster and the song, although "God shed His grace on thee/And crown thy good with brotherhood" still feels plainly ungrammatical.

    Nor I have I found anyone to defend the apparent mismatch of person. How do we jump from third person America in the one song to second person thee in the second?

  28. Jeff Carney said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    Egad. "America the Beautiful" has got to be the most grammatically bizarre of all our patriotic songs. From time to time over the last 30 years I've peaked at it and reanalyzed the punctuation and tried to make consistent sense, especially from verse to verse, and perhaps I'm an idiot, or perhaps it's just a mess that sounds pretty, but it just DOES NOT WORK. YMMV.

  29. L said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

    > How do we jump from third person America in the one song to
    > second person thee in the second?

    You're assuming that the writer of the poster was aware that these are two different songs. I suspect that the illiteracy here runs a little deeper than grammar, although I'm entirely certain that the sentiment was deep and real.

  30. rwmg said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

    @Eric P. Smith. When repeating it each Sunday, I have always understood "unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden," to be a statement of divine omniscience rather than a desire that we open our hearts to him. Until I read your comment that never occurred to me.

  31. John Swindle said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:16 am

    @J. Goard: "America! America! God shed his grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood" is a petition addressed at least in form to America, that God in His grace bestow a brotherhood that is lacking. The part that used to throw me was the "for" in "Oh beautiful for spacious skies." I guess it's like the inescapable "for" in "Glory be to God for dappled things."

    In the poster, "God bless America/and shed His grace on thee" does sound wrong, but I'm not sure why. How do we know that "America" is a third person here? "God bless America" isn't really an imperative, and "God bless thee, America and shed his grace" would work fine.

  32. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    @J.W. Brewer (wa-ay back there in the comments)
    '"epicenter" metaphorically in a story not actually about an earthquake'

    I must admit to a frisson of etymological horror when it is used merely to mean the really central center—there's nothing peripheral about this one, no siree instead of something that is above a center.
    Interestingly the science magazine New Scientist once (5-6 yrs ago?) a correction of their misuse in an earlier edition of 'epicentre': they had actually printed that the recent quake's "epicentre was 10 kilometers below the surface".

    The other one that is very personal goat-getty is 'sea-change' when it's not into something rich (and preferably strange).
    But that's just me.

  33. Mr Punch said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    @ J.W. Brewer – I kind of think the substitution of "those who trespass against us" for "them that trespass against us" in the Lord's Prayer came about because the latter seemed wrong – it should have been "them what trespass against us."

  34. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    I didn't realize that this was Pet Peeve Wednesday. Very well, I shall declare mine: Panini's (when it's not the name of the restaurant).

    What bugs me about "America! America! God shed his grace on thee" is this use of "shed." It's supposed to mean spread, share, extend, bountifully bestow – but the verb to shed, to my ear, means to throw away and have it no longer, as a dog sheds a winter coat. That would suggest that God is being invited to rid himself of his grace, which as a child always suggested to me that Divine grace is the sort of thing one might find at the Salvation Army Store.

    As an adult it occurs to me that the Salvation Army temselves would be thrilled about that!

    As an aside, the old joke has it that the last two words of the Star Spangled Banner are "Play ball!" As a Mets fan, I know them to be "red glare."

  35. Pete said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    OK so this is irrealis we're talking about, not subjunctive. And the very fact that these peevers are able to identify sentences where the irrealis "should" have been used but hasn't been proves that no ambiguity is introduced.

    But there is a subtle distinction that we seem to be missing. The irrealis form If he were is only used in counterfactuals. You sometimes see hypercorrections of the form Then I hit upon the idea of tapping the radiator. If Asok were in his cell he'd hear me and realize I was here. (That's a fictional example, but it's as close as I can remember to one I came across in a not-very-good novel called Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer.) In this case it should be if he was.

    I'm not saying that this distinction means we should try to preserve the irrealis; I'm just saying that peevers endlessly banging on about it can result in prose like the above, which sounds dreaadful because it's unnatural, and is also grammatically incorrect, in both formal and informal English.

  36. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    "God bless America" has always seemed to me to be addressed to America, speaking of God in the (grammatical, not necessarily trinitarian) third person – "May God bless America." The combination thus reads "May God bless America, America, and may he also shed his grace on thee"

    In this reading it parallels "…bless you and keep you and cause his countenance to shine upon you."

  37. Steve F said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 9:45 am

    @ Pflaumbam:
    Quote:'If I were rich is in competition with If I was rich. No such contrast is available for If I became rich.'

    What about 'If I were to become rich' or even 'Were I to become rich'? or am I missing something?

    @ RP and J Goard;

    If 'God save the Queen' and 'God bless America' are interpreted as imperatives rather than subjunctives then it seems to me that there is a more serious theological than grammatical error. Since when has it been acceptable to demand, rather than implore or request, God to do anything?

  38. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    @Steve F.: what's the basis for the notion that "imperatives" are only suitable for demands as opposed to mere requests? "Eleison" as in "Kyrie eleison" is an imperative as a matter of Greek verbal morphology, and the English rendering "[Lord] have mercy [on me/us]" seems as much of an English imperative as "drop the gun" or "pass the salt." Or "give us this day our daily bread." Or "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts." Perhaps it would seem more polite to have phrased the latter petition to God as "would you mind cleansing the thoughts of our hearts, please," but that's not the traditional text.

  39. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:31 am

    > Since when has it been acceptable to demand, rather than
    > implore or request, God to do anything?

    At least since the time of early Biblical Hebrew, which didn't reliably make those distinctions. "May the L-rd bless you and keep you…" reads in the original ambiguously and can also be read as command voice or even as the simple future ("The L-rd will bless and keep you…") or even (less supportably but possible) as the simple past "The Lord blessed and kept you…" or… well now we have to discuss the Semitic imperfective. Why does this matter? Precisely because it was translated – and surely, one wants to translate these things accurately.

    The standard English solution is to be guided by the inferred intention of the original text, in this case governed by theology; hence the choice (which I concur with) of "May the L-rd bless and keep you"

    On top of the inevitable distortions of translation (often through several intermediate languages) we have the evolution of English through all the changes it has experienced since before Beowulf, as influenced by all the theological lenses that English has experienced since Beowulf.

    More recent coinages like "God bless America" consciously imitate these retranslated forms, in a form that was known at the time of coinage.

    Theologically, I advise you to go ahead and say whatever you believe, in whatever form seems to express it appropriately, and then trust the Omniscient Listener to know what it was that you meant by it.

    The non-linguist in the next pew is doing exactly that, you know.

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    Put another way, the difference between subjunctive "God save the Queen" and the imperative "O Lord, save the Queen" (from the suffrages at Morning Prayer in the traditional Church of England usage) is syntactic but not theological. It relates to whether God being addressed directly ("Lord" in the second example would be the vocative "Domine" in Latin) or referred to in as it were the third person.

  41. languagehat said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    The subjunctive cannot be abandoned. Sometimes it is necessary for the meaning. If someone tries to abandon it without understanding the meaning, the meaning gets lost.

    For heaven's sake, people will just express the idea differently; in fact, they already do, since the subjunctive (to use that inadequate term) is in fact effectively dead in English. It never ceases to amaze me that this Chicken Little attitude survives despite the manifest fact that people have continued to be able to say whatever they want to say even as the language they speak has changed in major ways (or, if you prefer, "fallen into irremediable decay"). Oh, no, we're losing the dual! How will people be able to talk about things that come in pairs? The singular/plural distinction is fading in the second-person pronoun: something must be done!

  42. ajay said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    As an aside, the old joke has it that the last two words of the Star Spangled Banner are "Play ball!"

    I thought the last four words were "Gentlemen, start your engines"?

    If 'God save the Queen' and 'God bless America' are interpreted as imperatives

    But the second line of "GSTQ" is "Long live our noble Queen", which is obviously not imperative, and makes it clearer that neither is the first one.
    The far superior second verse:
    O Lord our God arise,
    Scatter her enemies,
    And make them fall:
    Confound their politics,
    Frustrate their knavish tricks,
    On Thee our hopes we fix:
    God save us all.

  43. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    @ Steve F

    As I understand it, If I were to become rich contrasts with If I was to become rich. There's no alteration in the form of become, or any other verb except be, that would support a mood distinction. So it seems better to say that in Later in life I became rich, preterite became is used to mark past time, while in If I became rich it marks modal remoteness.

    Were I… is an interesting one because there, and also in the phrase as it were, no alternation with was is possible. (CGEL p.86 also notes the legalistic Such a move were ill-advised ["would be"], which may still be just about alive, and where was is not possible).

    But that just confirms the contrast between the indicative and irrealis ('subjunctive') moods of be – it doesn't argue for extending such a contrast to other verbs in the language.

  44. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    @ Language Hat

    The singular/plural distinction is fading in the second-person pronoun: something must be done!

    The funny thing about the second person number thing is that, having recently had a baby, I've suddenly been confronted with the fact that something MUST be done! There are all these situations where there are now three of us and I need to distinguish between you (s) and (pl).

    Of course, as you say, I just get on with it. If y'all or youse or yunz was available to my dialect I'd be okay, but as it is I'm stuck with you two or you guys (which still feels a bit odd on this side of the Atlantic when addressed to a woman and a baby girl). It doesn't stop me communicating, but surprisingly often it stops me in my tracks momentarily, which is odd for something as basic as the pronoun system.

  45. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    hat, I question the empirical accuracy assertion that the subjunctive (to use the standard English term, which should not be gratuitiously deprecated by the-tomato-is-really-a-fruit-not-a-vegetable snobs) is dead. Leaving aside the continued existence of various fixed phrases, John Walden gave an example above of a context in which it's still quite productive in at least one variety of AmEng. One of the prior LL posts had an example from Geoff Pullum something like "I demand that this cease immediately," and I think you could find some reasonable number of AmEng speakers for whom "I demand that this ceases immediately" is Just Wrong, not merely "informal" like the use of "if I was" in contexts where "if I were" would also be acceptable.

    Now maybe it will end up as dead as the dual, but the future is unwritten and there's no need to be triumphalist about it. The loss of singular/plural distinctions in second person pronouns was unfortunate, imho, and the fact that we survived it doesn't make it praiseworthy. There's a lot of ruin in a language, one might say.

  46. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    > I thought the last four words were "Gentlemen, start your engines"?

    You must be singing a different verse.

  47. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer

    …the subjunctive (to use the standard English term, which should not be gratuitiously deprecated by the-tomato-is-really-a-fruit-not-a-vegetable snobs)…

    It's hardly gratuitous or snobbish. There are solid reasons for wanting to distinguish the were of <If that were so from constructions like If that be so, and for rejecting a distinction based on tense. So whichever one you want to call the subjunctive, you do need a different name for the other.

  48. Ted said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    @L: O Persian rug! O Persian rug! Dog shed his coat on thee.

    See? No bugs. Your pet can shed; you need not peeve. You can deedle-daidle and bidi-bidi-bum in peace.

    I, on the other hand, am still sitting in the railway station with a ticket to my destination and an indicative where I want a subjunctive or irrealis or what-have-you.

  49. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

    It is quite common for natural languages to have a single lexical item that covers two or more different phenomena which do not, according to the Latest Scientific Opinion, form a coherent natural group. That's just how language is. Specialists are free to come up with more precise jargon to use among themselves, but should be cautious in complaining that the masses have not followed suit, especially if it leads them into peevery about a well-established natural language usage is "illogical" or creates a risk of "ambiguity." Again, that's just how language is. There was a fair amount of airing of this issue in the previous comment thread to the earlier LL post linked way up above as "more from Mark Liberman here," so I will refer back to points made therein rather than restate them.

  50. languagehat said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    One of the prior LL posts had an example from Geoff Pullum something like "I demand that this cease immediately," and I think you could find some reasonable number of AmEng speakers for whom "I demand that this ceases immediately" is Just Wrong, not merely "informal"

    Your "some reasonable number" is my tiny and diminishing minority. Do you seriously think a substantial number of speakers (say, enough to materially affect the outcome of an election) say things like that? You're talking about a thin layer of what Russians call the intelligentsia, which we here are all members of but which is very far from representative of the wide world of English speakers. Take a bus, get off at some random location, and start chatting with people; how long do you expect it will be before you hear a live subjunctive (outside of fixed phrases)? If you had to hear one before eating, my prediction is that you'd starve to death.

    And speaking of death, I didn't say it was dead, I said it was "effectively dead," by which I meant it survives in rarefied venues like this one. I'm not being "triumphalist" (I like weird verb forms myself), just realistic.

  51. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    Alright. But given that this site is for linguistics discussion, I don't think making distinctions according to the current scientific consensus and using appropriate terminology is gratuitous. Any more than using 'energy' and 'work' scientifically correctly would be on a physics site.

  52. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    Sorry, my last reply was to J.W. Brewer.

  53. The other Mark P said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

    e.g. it would not be right to change 'The Queen, whom God preserve' to 'The Queen, whom God preserves'.

    Indeed, we should change it to English how it is actually spoken in real life. So it becomes "The Queen, who God preserves". At the risk of outraging the peevers, that sounds just fine to me. If you walk around talking as in the line "whom God preserve" you will sound like a pretentious idiot (because, of course, you will be a pretentious idiout).

    I'm with Language Hat. People are getting by just fine without these silly distinctions, and are not even remotely confused.

  54. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    Indeed, we should change it to English how it is actually spoken in real life. So it becomes "The Queen, who God preserves".

    But that still wouldn't mean the same thing, would it?

    I wasn't discussing how we should go around talking. I was following up on Eric P. Smith's point, which was about the understanding of existing texts. He said that if people tried to eliminate the subjunctive without understanding it, the meaning would be lost. Other commenters then questioned his understanding of the particular text he was discussing. I said that even if he was wrong about that text, the point stood. Which it does. If you want an example nearer to natural forms of speech, try changing 'God save the Queen' to 'God saves the Queen'. It wouldn't work.

  55. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    Quick and dirty corpus research via googling shows an over 20:1 ratio in the preference for "demand that this cease" over "demand that this ceases." Small sample size, of course, but the hits are certainly not limited to carefully edited prose. Perhaps only intelligentsia types would use the construction in the first place and they're just the sort of weirdos for whom the older rule remains productive?

    Pflaumbaum: I certainly don't object to people using technical academic-linguistics jargon on this site, although it's not clear to me that the CGEL's proposed terminology for what to call the "if I were" construction has in fact become the consensus usage in academic-linguistics circles. I merely object to the implication that e.g. the New York Times guy, who is not an academic, should have departed from traditional English usage, any more than a New York Times food writer should depart from referring to the tomato as a vegetable to keep up with what the botanists may say among themselves. Write how you want, and let others do the same without calling them wrong. We'll all be able to understand each other with a modicum of Gricean charity.

    The more I read the Mason letter, by the way, the more convinced I am that her tongue was so deep in her cheek that she is, in fact, unlikely to have been a particularly sincere supporter of the battle Mr. Corbett is still trying to wage these many generations later. One would need to read a bunch of other letters to the editor or editorials of the day of the sort whose style she was parodying to see what substantive issues they involved. She might, for example, have been trying to suggest that concern about the supposed menace of unrestricted immigration (a very hot-button topic in 1924) was as silly or overblown as worrying about preserving the subjunctive. But I suspect something like that is what was going on. The way in which certain stereotypical tropes of reactionary alarm are piled up makes it sound like the Colbert Report avant la lettre.

  56. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    @Ted

    > @L: O Persian rug! O Persian rug! Dog shed his coat on thee.

    Aye, there's the bellyrub: The dog no longer retains what is shed, whereas one supposes that the Divine supply of grace is undiminished by each shedding. (It only seems like the dog can shed forever and ever.)

    > See? No bugs. Your pet can shed; you need not peeve. You can
    > deedle-daidle and bidi-bidi-bum in peace.

    If I were a rich man.

    As it were.

  57. KevinM said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

    Agree that Mason, blessed be she, may her tribe increase, was probably intentionally going over the top. Cast-iron whimsy, not quite deft enough to be funny to the modern reader.

  58. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    @Ajay

    > But the second line of "GSTQ" is "Long live our noble Queen", which
    > is obviously not imperative, and makes it clearer that neither is the
    > first one.

    While I agree with you entirely here, the same argument constructed from God Bless America only serves to muddy our end of the Atlantic:

    God bless America,
    Land that I love!
    Stand beside her,
    And guide her,
    By the light of the lamp from above.
    From the mountains, to the prairies,
    To the oceans, white with foam
    God bless America, My home sweet home.

    I don't see how "Stand beside her, and guide her" is any more or less clearly imperative. Nor, for that matter, does the last line help us out any.

    Can we build the case the "GSTQ" is not imperative, but "GSA" is?

    I don't buy it; I don't think that it's supposed to be imperative. Irving Berlin was writing for popular consumption, and for Ethel Merman to belt out from the radios and the picture shows. I actually think it expresses a request, but one that is confidently expected to be granted.

    GBA is manifest destiny set to music. Badges? It don't need no stinkin' badges.

  59. Ted said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    @SteveF:

    If 'God save the Queen' and 'God bless America' are interpreted as imperatives. . . .

    Surely you mean "If 'God save the Queen' and 'God bless America' be interpreted as imperatives"?

  60. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer –

    I agree that there isn't consensus over CGEL's terms, I said there was consensus about the distinction, which I think there largely is; and I meant that using appropriately distinct terms was justified, not only Huddlestone and Pullum's.

    I'm not sure I agree with your larger point. To extend the analogy, if in an ordinary discussion you say that so-and-so 'has a lot of energy', it would be daft of me to tell you that you should only use that word to mean the capacity to do work or whatever. But if you were talking about physics, and using 'energy' incorrectly, I think i would be within my rights to get prescriptive. The same holds for grammatical terminology. Of course there will be grey areas, but when the person saying 'subjunctive' is bemoaning its loss or incorrect use, that seems like fair game.

    @ languagehat:

    Take a bus, get off at some random location, and start chatting with people; how long do you expect it will be before you hear a live subjunctive (outside of fixed phrases)? If you had to hear one before eating, my prediction is that you'd starve to death.

    Standard English, as you know, doesn't just mean colloquial spoken English. To supplement J.W. Brewer's corpus search, I'd add that I just watched a diplomat on MSNBC, and at 1.21 he says:

    I think it's really important that we not play politics with this.

    If I'd waited from your post till then before eating, I'd have got quite hungry, but not starved. As it was, I stuffed myself with leftovers all evening, ruining the experiment.

    So can I take it you consider MSNBC 'rarefied'? ;)

  61. Aidan Baker said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    LINES ON THE LOSS OF THE SUBJUNCTIVE

    With the subjunctive, we are losing
    a way to show the difference
    between two thoughts we'd be confusing
    as polar opposites in sense.
    "She insists that the house is clean"
    (she does, despite all evidence)
    is strained if also used to mean
    she makes you clean it, no pretence.
    "She insists that the house be clean"
    conveys the other not the one.
    This plaintive pedant rests his case,
    lest it should tire him in the sun.

  62. Nathan said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: I'm pretty sure that use of the word "cease" is already confined to the intelligentsia.

  63. Circe said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 12:53 am

    Since when has it been acceptable to demand, rather than implore or request, God to do anything?

    At least since 800BCE: See here.

  64. pj said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 5:41 am

    @Aidan Baker – I have a similar example. I remember hearing on the radio (BBC radio, in a scripted piece) not so long ago something along the lines of

    Lucy's illness meant that she missed a lot of school, although her father always insisted that she attended whenever possible.

    Now, I genuinely didn't know whether to interpret that as meaning
    A: (as I, a 'subjunctive-retainer', would use it to mean) that her father used to tell the school/the neighbours/whoever that his daughter was going to school as much as she could (with an implied 'we're not sure that was true');
    or B: that he used to insist to the daughter that she should go as much as she could (for which I would use and expect 'her father always insisted that she attend whenever possible').

    Mind you, I've realised while writing this, change the tense and number of the verbs and you've got the same ambiguity, subjunctive-retainer or no:

    'Her kids are ill a lot, but she insists that they attend school as much as they can.'

    'She insists that the house is/be clean' may be felt to be an important distinction, but 'She insists that the bathrooms gleam' would pass by without alarm, wouldn't it?

    I guess my qualm at hearing the original example, then – and my point was not going to be 'This must not be allowed to happen!', just 'But look, while it's happening, you can't deny, genuine, if rare, ambiguity!' – cannot actually be discomfort with the ambiguity in meaning itself, so much as some kind of discomfort with simply not knowing whether my fellow language-users are still playing by the same rules that I do.

  65. John Walden said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 6:41 am

    @Pflaumbaum

    You said:

    "If I were rich is in competition with If I was rich. No such contrast is available for If I became rich.

    Given that there is only one verb with an alternation in form – and that only in the 1st and 3rd per singular – surely it seems most economical to analyse the [i]were[/i] case as a vestigial mood of the verb to be, and everything else as the preterite tense being used to mark modal remoteness."

    You see, I would ideally rejig the terminology and say that there is a remote tense with two uses: Not-nowness can be either pastness (preterite) or be contrafactual to the present or future ("past subjunctive"). That leaves "be" as being the only case of a differentiation between pastness versus presentness and not-nowness versus presentness "Be" being a bit different from everything else is hardly novel.

    It's really the same idea being expressed in other words.

  66. Rodger C said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 7:45 am

    @L: Shouldn't that be "through the night with a light from above"? (Help! I'm visualizing Kate Smith.)

  67. languagehat said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 7:46 am

    Standard English, as you know, doesn't just mean colloquial spoken English.

    So? I didn't say it did. I said the vast majority of English speakers do not use non-frozen subjunctives ("God save the Queen" is clearly frozen), and quoting a diplomat on MSNBC is so far from disputing my point I will take it as a confirming example. There is a deep level of elitism on exhibit here, a dismissal of the way ordinary people speak, that is absolutely characteristic of any intelligentsia. I'm not pointing fingers, since it took me years and years to get most of it out of my own system (and I still find outcroppings), but it's a bit depressing.

  68. Aidan Baker said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 7:49 am

    @pj

    Yes, your final para is right. 'Observe and reflect' is often a better response to language change than 'seek to forbid'. Indeed, some of the most ambiguous things I've heard people say recently haven't involved questions of grammar at all, changing or otherwise.

  69. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    @ John Walden

    That leaves "be" as being the only case of a differentiation between pastness versus presentness and not-nowness versus presentness.

    I'm a bit confused. Surely the 'Remote' tense partakes in Past/Non-Past and Contrafactual/Factual, not Contrafactual/Non-Past contrasts? And doesn't be behave exactly the same way, except that it has a further non-tensed form that can also be used contrafactually?

    @ languagehat

    I'm not dismissing the way ordinary people speak at all – I'm one of them, and I think it's vanishingly rare that I use subjunctive constructions!

    I'm just querying your claim that it's 'effectively dead in English'. If you'd said, 'effectively dead in colloquial spoken English', I'd have agreed. But as I understand the way Standard English is defined by linguists, it does take into account elite usage to a considerable degree. For instance, CGEL describes it as 'the kind of English that is widely accepted in the countries of the world where English is the language of government, education, broadcasting, news publishing entertainment and other public discourse'.

    I don't think that by following that I'm being elitist (my own dialect differs in certain ways from how CGEL defines the Standard dialect). I just thought that was the dialect we were talking about, and there subjunctive constructions do seem to be alive, if perhaps not massively productive.

  70. L said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    @Rodger C

    > @L: Shouldn't that be "through the night with a light from above"?
    > (Help! I'm visualizing Kate Smith.)

    Second bit first, I simply erred: It was of course Kate Smith, not Ethel Merman, who made this her signature tune. I'm sure Merman sang it sometimes and belted it out with gusto, but you're visualizing correctly.

    The lyric is more involved, but again, you're recalling the Kate Smith "famous" version, yes. What is the "correct" lyric is a little more complex, as it turns out – but seeing that this is Irving Berlin's lsat revised version of 1938, I think we must consider it official. Berlin was a Tincan Alleycat to the core, and that particular art is not remotely adverse to rewrites.

    His original (1918) lyric was apparently a third (rather, first) variant: "to the right with the light from above"

    What I've quoted is what I recall (maybe incorrectly) being taught as a child.

    In my defense, I was never a hockey fan.

  71. L said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    Oops, hit enter too soon.

    All corrections being accepted with gratitude, it still doesn't help us with the question of, er, subjunctivity.

    If we are to take two texts (GSTQ, GBA) as evidence – or for that matter the 1918 or 1938 versions (GSTK) – then we ought to look at both of them as evidence.

    The argument from GSTQ works, the argument from GBA simply produces insufficient data.

  72. John Walden said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    Yes, I got myself all twisted around. I probably meant:

    "That leaves "be" as being the only case of a differentiation between,

    on the one hand,

    pastness contrasted with presentness

    (I was at the party (but now I'm not))

    and on the other hand,

    not-nowness versus presentness

    (I wish I were at the party (but I'm not))

    The remoteness covers both pastness and contrafactuality. Neither are the present, how things now are.

    The same remote "tense" is used for other distancings. That's why "Did sir want anything" is remoter than "Does sir want anything?", along with "I was wondering" "Might I ask?" and so on.

    It's all a half-remembered rehash of Lewis's "The English Verb", which makes more sense than I ever will. Though I have it clear in my mind until I try to explain myself.

    As far as the imminent death, or not, of that mandative present is concerned, it does seem remarkably easy to find examples of it in a certain kind of writing. But then so is it easy to find words like "notwithstanding" or "albeit" only in similar contexts, without assuming thay they are going the way of "eftsoons" in a near future.

    Even so my English would, as I have said, toss in a modal verb and get out of trouble that way.

  73. John Walden said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    All directed @ Pflaumbaum. Sorry.

    Might I suggest that there be a way of editing these posts?

  74. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    Let me get away from the apparently intellectuals-only word "cease." Googling turns up plenty of instances Out There of both "demand that he stop" and "demand that he stops" – since raw ghit numbers are notoriously unreliable I don't know whether the ratio from the totals is accurate, and the first few pages of the "stops" variant seem mostly to consist of numerous repetitions of a single text that must have gone viral because it relates to a controversy recently in the news. But I think some sampling of the "demand that he stop" hits suggests a range of contexts and speakers that doesn't really support hat's thesis that only a "thin slice" of the intelligentsia could ever possibly use such an expression.

  75. Brett said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    @L: The street those song writers worked on was called Tin Pan Alley.

  76. John Walden said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    Really, it's not that dead or elitist.

    Can we agree that the New York Post is not overly elitist?

    If so, can we accept that a search of the exact phrase "he be" should not reveal any examples of these forms, if the form is as moribund and/or highbrow as is being suggested?

    "LIKE SHOWALTER, VALENTINE COULD HAVE ENJOYED SUCCESS … August 29, 2012
    … which he seems to thrive, and the talent makeup of his roster – weak starting pitching and offense, strong bullpen – requires that he be proactive on … "

    1st result, by the way.

    "1993 WTC-BOMB MASTERMIND WANTS OUT OF SOLITARY – NYPOST. … August 23, 2012
    … mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — was sentenced to life plus 240 years in the slammer, with a recommendation that he be held in solitary … "

    3rd result

    The contexts of sports writing and this mandative form, or of phrases like "wants out" and "in the slammer" close to the form doesn't suggest to me any particular elitism about it. It may be confined to written journalism but it's not all snooty NYT or the New Yorker, quoted in another thread ("demanded that he shut Ayanbadejo up").

  77. languagehat said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    I seem to have had a comment deleted for some unfathomable reason, so I won't bother pursuing the discussion further.

  78. RP said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    The death of the subjunctive has long been predicted. Some writers thought it was so rare or minor as to be barely worth bothering with. In "Growth and Structure of the English Language", Jespersen devoted only a few lines to the subjunctive, and did not refer to its mandative use (the type of "be" subjunctive discussed by John Walden and J. W. Brewer and others) at all. The Fowlers, in "The King's English", did not refer to the mandative use either, only to the conditional or irrealis subjunctives ("if he be", "if I were"), of which they said that, with the exception of "were", these forms were perishing rapidly. In "Essentials of English Grammar" (1933 edition), Jespersen gave only one example that could be considered mandative ("I move that Mr N. be expelled from this club") alongside numerous conditional examples ("If this rumour be true", etc).

    The 1965 edition of Fowler's MEU has a bit more about the mandative, saying that in sentences such as "He asks that the patent rights be given back to him", "British idiom used to require 'should be'" but that this use of the subjunctive was now becoming established. Whilst the use of the subjunctive in formal motions such as "I move that Mr Smith be appointed" had already been standard, its "scope has been widened under American influence; it is now used after any words of command or desire". What this does not tell us is whether the American mandative is a relatively recent innovation or whether it is a survival of an older use that had died out, or virtually died out, in British usage before being borrowed back again. Do we know?

  79. Ellen K. said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

    Any good basic guides online to the subjunctive in English? Learning Spanish gave me lots of nice verb tense labels that easily apply in English as well. But verb moods are another matter. No simple parallels to English, so I didn't learn anything about the English subjunctive, not even that there is such a thing.

  80. RP said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 2:13 am

    Interesting look at the history of the subjunctive in Old and Middle English here http://anglisztika.ektf.hu/new/content/tudomany/ejes/ejesdokumentumok/2010/Kovacs_2010.pdf which also mentions the mandative use of the subjunctive in those varieties. It also discusses briefly the subjunctive in modern English.

  81. SK said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 6:00 am

    On the question of how well the subjunctive survives in English, I think it's worth distinguishing between active and passive knowledge of the language. Probably everyone in this thread recognizes that that not many English speakers naturally come out with sentences like the diplomat's 'I think it's really important that we not play politics with this', although there has been debate over how many English speakers 'really' talk like that.

    But look at this from the point of view of the listener (in this case the TV audience). Not many MSNBC viewers would be surprised or confused to hear the quoted sentence in the mouth of an English speaker, and it wouldn't be taken as a deliberate nod to some archaic form of the language (along the lines of 'ye', 'thou', 'X giveth and X taketh away', and so on). Compare that to the reaction if the diplomat had said 'We not play politics with this' by itself, to mean 'We don't play politics with this'/'We are not playing politics with this': although it would be understood, it would be taken as a speech error, a sign that the diplomat was not a native speaker, a bizarre impersonation of Tarzan in the middle of a serious interview, or something else of the kind.
    However you want to characterize the difference between the acceptability of 'we not play' in these two contexts, it surely forms part of the native-speaker knowledge of very many users of English, not just a tiny minority.

  82. Mar Rojo said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    "S.O.S"

    Imperative or subjunctive?

  83. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    @ Mar Rojo: doesn't it depend on how you interpret it? If as "save you our souls" then imperative; if as "let/may you save our souls" then hortatory subjunctive. But that is applying Latin grammar to it, which seems pointless as both forms are the same in English.

  84. Jean-Michel said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

    I seem to have had a comment deleted for some unfathomable reason, so I won't bother pursuing the discussion further.

    The spam filter here deletes hundreds or thousands of comments every day. Even comments by regular users get caught up in the process. I wouldn't assume anything sinister about it.

    [(myl) Indeed. Bringing the tally up to date: as of 9/1/2012, our filter had trapped 3,277,574 alleged spam comments; as of this morning, 9/15/2012, 14 days later, the total is 3,345,978.

    (3345978-3277574)/14 = 4886 per day on average.

    Details aside, it's too many to check. So if a relevant, contentful, and non-abusive comment gets lost, please let me know and I'll try to do something about it.]

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