9. The Subjunctive

I consider that, for practical purposes, the subjunctive mood is dead in BrE. I am sometimes taken to task by other teachers for making this statement, and in a recent discussion on an English site elsewhere on the net I was accused of ‘dumbing down’ the grammar of English. So, I thought I’d post my thoughts here to see if I get any reaction.

Let’s take the so-called past subjunctive first.

1. If I was/were you, I’d accept the job.

2. You’d feel differently if you were a woman,

3. If I had an opportunity like that, I’d take it.

It is true that in #1, were is the subjunctive form of BE. However, I prefer to present this as an idiomatic expression, or a fossilised phrase, for three reasons:

1. Many speakers of BrE, particularly those under the age of 40, would say was here.

2. Even many of those who use were in the expression if I were you use was in other expressions where were is the ‘grammatically correct’ form: He’d be a lot happier.

If he ….. still working in Turkey.

3. BE is the only verb in English which has a different form of the verb in the subjunctive – and only in the first and third forms singular. In #2 and #3, for example, and in examples with all other verbs in English, the subjunctive form is identical to the indicative.

These forms may be rendered by a recognisably subjunctive form in other languages, and  they may have had a recognisably subjunctive form in earlier versions of English. Today, however, we cannot see the difference. It seems therefore pointless to call them subjunctive forms. I shall continue to present if I were you as an idiomatic or fossilised expression, and say that the subjunctive mood is dead in modern English – in its past tense form at least.

Let’s move on to the present subjunctive.

This is more recognisable; for BE it is be, and for HAVE it is have, in all persons. For other verbs it is the same as the indicative except for the third person singular, which drops the indicative –s: he come.

It is used after words expressing the idea that something is to be wished for, or is important:

4. I suggest that he be promoted.

5. I insist that John finish his homework before going out.

6. It is essential that she have a proper breakfast befor leaving the house in the morning.

So, why do I claim that the present subjunctive is dead?  Theer are four reasons for this:

1. Apart from the verb BE, The subjunctive is recognisable only in the third person singular. With all other persons, the subjunctive is identical to the indicative: I insist that they finish… , It is essential that you have … .

2, Many speakers of BrE naturally use the indicative anyway: I suggest that he is… , I insist that John finishes … , It is essential that she has … .

3. Even among those who do not use the indicative, most prefer to use a construction with should: I suggest that he should be… , In insist that John should finish… , It is essential that she should have… .

4. The subjunctive sounds stilted today to many native speakers.

So, why torment learners with a form that is alien to most native speakers?

Expressions such as Long live the Queen, as it were and so be it can easily be presented as idiomatic expressions. Life is a lot simpler for everybody .if we stop pretending that the subjunctive is alive and kicking in British English. It’s a different story with American English, but I am a speaker of British English, and that’s the dialect I work in.

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