Table of Contents
I. A Comparatively Modest Mood
Compared to the French, the rôle of the subjunctive in English is quite marginal – particularly if you count presence (as I am inclined to do) only when the form of the verb is visibly different from its ordinary, indicative form.1 In Part II below I describe what I recognize as virtually the only remaining “living” uses (i.e., allowing new formulations). In Part III I list what stereotyped, essentially non-living uses I can come up with.
For both II and III I am inspired by (and I recommend to you) the excellent article on the Subjunctive in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition. This still very reliable reference work can be found online in digital form, as here.
II. The “Living” English Subjunctive
A. Past Used for a Contrafactual Present
Consider the verb “to know” in the words of the well-known song:
The seemingly past form “knew” is used to refer to an unreal present (you do not know Susie the way I do).
Modern French has a similar tactic of using a past indicative verb form as a contrafactual present (or unlikely future) in conditional clauses:
- ♬ Si, toi, tu connaissais Susie comme moi, je la connais… ♫
Historically, however, a contrafactual like the “knew” in “If you knew Susie” is not a past indicative form, but a (present-unrealized) subjunctive, as becomes clear when we consider the contrafactual “were.” Note the following cases, in which “were” has a singular subject:
The Contrafactual “Were”
- ♬ “If I were a carpenter / And you were a lady, / Would you marry me anyway, / Would you have my baby?”♫
- “If that were true, I would go home and bite my pillow.”
The indicative past tense forms for these sentences would be “was”; the present indicative would be “am” and “is.” The contrafactual “were” we see here is a true subjunctive, cognate with the German “Konjunktiv II” form wäre. It refers, not to something past, but to an unreal present.
Here are a few other occurrences of contrafactual “were.”
“As if / As though” + “were”
- “As if I were anything like him!”
- “You sound as though you were angry.”
“Were to” in a Future-Less-Vivid (Unlikely Future) Condition
- “If that were to happen, the administration would respond immediately.”
Commentary. Here “were to” is pretty much interchangeable with “should.”
“Were” in the Expression of a Wish
- ♬ “Oh, I wish I were2 in the land of cotton…“♫
- “Would that it were true!”
- “If only you were my father!”
B. The Infinitive Used As a Personal Verb
There are a number of situations, in recent English, in which you might find this curious substitution (as it seems) of the infinitive (or “base form”) for the more usual personal form of the verb. However, only one of them, according to me, is truly current; the others have fallen out of use (or soon will…one may hope).
In Current Usage: After the Expression of a Strong Wish
Some call this the mandative subjunctive. One notices something odd going on in such constructions when the second verb is in the third-person singular, and the usual “-s” is missing:
- “It is essential / It is necessary / that one read attentively all the relevant documents.”
- “She insists that George tell her what happened.”
In fact, the verb form used here is the infinitive (or “base form”), as is revealed when the second verb is “to be” (the only English verb with a unique infinitive form):
- “It is important that you be on time.”
The French for the above sentences definitely uses the subjunctive:
- Il est essentiel / Il faut / qu’on lise attentivement tous les documents se rapportant à l’affaire.
- Elle insiste pour que / Elle exige / que Georges lui dise ce qui est arrivé.
- Il est important / Il importe / que vous soyez à l’heure.
I do not much care for this “mandative subjunctive” construction. Even if Old and Middle English used subjunctive here, nowadays it sounds as though the speaker were (!) suppressing the modal verb “should” and thereby forcing the infinitive to act, unnaturally, as a personal verb. Are not the following formulations more graceful?
- “It is essential that one should read attentively all the pertinent documents.”
- “She insists that George should tell her what happened.”
- “It is important that you should be on time.”3
The mandative subjunctive, just described, is the only current construction in which the infinitive functions as a personal (subjunctive) verb. However, if in your reading of English texts you dip into anything earlier than the late 20th century, you may stumble upon some other uses.
In a Future-Less-Vivid (or Potential, or Concessive) Condition
I do not care for this usage, but I cannot deny that some of our best poets have lent prestige to it. Use of the unexpected form (the infinitive) suggest that the writer considers the condition to be, in some sense or other, very “iffy.”
As with the mandative subjunctive, so here, a third-person singular verb appears without an “-s”:
…if gold ruste,4 what shal iren do?
…if gold rust, what shall iron do? –Chaucer, General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (line 502)
When the verb is “to be,” however, we are obliged to admit (as we did likewise for the mandative subjunctive) that the form is actually the infinitive or base form:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. –Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. –Shakespeare, Sonnet 130If music be the food of love, play on. –Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night
Some random instances from the 19th and 20th centuries. (You will note the preponderance of “be”s.)
- “If Mr. Wordsworth have set forth principles of poetry which his arguments are insufficient to support, let him and those who have adopted his sentiments be set right by the confutation of those arguments, and by the substitution of more philosophical principles.” –Coleridge, Biographia litteraria, cap. 22
- “Can it be that, like a leaky cistern, the moon holds no water? Let us consider a moment. If this be true, then certainly there can be no sea-views or sea-bathing in the moon.” –Graham’s Magazine 36:6 December 1850.
- “Well, if it be so, –so it is, you know, / And if it be so, so be it.” –Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- “If a dread of not being understood be hidden in the breasts of other young people to anything like the extent to which it used to be hidden in mine…” –Charles Dickens
- “If it be true that every novel contains an element of autobiography…” –Joseph Conrad
- “If it be ever of interest and profit to put one’s finger on the productive germ of a work of art…” –Henry James
- “If the inquiry be psychological, (then) not religious institutions, but rather religious feelings and religious impulses must be its subject.” –William James
- “if some reader miss his favorite, let him understand that at least there was no malice in the exclusion.” –F. Marion Crawford
- “If the assassin be proved to have usurped the law’s prerogative in righting his wrongs, that ends the matter.” –Samuel Clemens
- “That which makes a man strong even if he be little and frail in body…” –D. H. Lawrence
After “Whether,” “Although,” “Unless,” and “Lest”
One may also find in recent, but I trust not current, English the-infinitive-used-as-a-personal-verb after a few subordinating conjunctions. These uses are, at least in part, assimilable to its use in a future-less-vivid condition.
“Whether” followed by the base form is surely a variant of “If” followed by the base form (“If it be true…,” “Whether it be true…”), and as readily dispensed with. I believe the same is likely to be the case with “although” followed by the infinitive form, which you occasionally see. With both “whether” and “although” I am of the opinion that, in contemporary English, if the simple indicative will not do, then the use of a modal is preferable to these moribund subjunctives.
The same goes, quant à moi, for “unless” and “lest,” unless perhaps it be – I mean, should be – in some archaizing context. “Lest” is itself old-fashioned, and so perhaps the subjunctive seems natural enough after it:
- “…lest he think ill of us.”
Even here, however, it would be perfectly fine to say:
- “…lest he should think ill of us.”
III. Formulaic Wishes, Curses, and Blessings
These are third-person, independent, mostly jussive constructions that have maintained a zombie-like5 existence even into our own day, by which I mean that can still be understood and repeated but not varied, or not by much: about the only variable element in them is the recipient of the curse or blessing.
You will note that, as in the uses described in II.B above, the verb is in the infinitive or base form. (Note, also, the inversion of subject and verb when the verb is not transitive.)
I list them in alphabetical order of the verb.
- “Be that as it may”
- “Be he alive or be he dead”
- “Be it resolved, that…”
- “Far be it from me…”
- “Be it done unto me according to thy word”
- “So be it!”
- “God bless (us every one…you…that man…America…the state of Ohio)!”
- Cf. “G – d d – – n it!” below.
- “Come what may”
- “G – d d – – n it!”
- “God forbid!”
- “Heaven help us!”
- “Long live the king!”
- “Rain or shine“
- “God save the queen!”
- “Suffice it to say…”
- “The devil take him!”
Imprecation formulas of the type “G – d d – – n it!” have a subject-less variant, e.g., “D – – n it!” This last kind of construction is the subject of a deservedly famous article by the American linguist James D. McCawley (†1999). However, since that article contains rather strong stuff, and the last thing I want to do is give offense to anyone, I will not provide a link to it, leaving it to you to seek it out…if you choose.6 If you do seek it out, and don’t like what you find…on your head be it!
Admittedly, even if imprecations are mostly frozen formulas,7 they are undeniably an important and enduring feature of contemporary and any conceivable future English.
- For the opposite, inclusive, approach, see the Wikipedia article on the English subjunctive (which the Wikipedia folks would like for someone to improve).
- Except the actual lyrics of the song are: “I wish I WAS…”
- Fowler, in the previously cited reference: “I move that Mr. Smith be appointed Chairman. This use of the subjunctive in a formal motion is established idiom, and its scope has been widened under American influence; it is now used after any words of command or desire.”
- The “e” of the verb “ruste” is a specifically subjunctive ending in Middle English. The indicative third-person singular form would be “rusteth” = modern “rusts.”
- I am using “zombie” in a neutral, or even positive, and definitely pre-George-Romero sense.
- The article was circulated under a pseudonym.
- The more recently minted imprecatories “frak,” and “smeg” are of course postulated, in their respective tv programs, as being frozen formulas in their own, far-off days.