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God Save the Subjunctive.
September 16, 2002 9:50 AM   Subscribe

God Save the Subjunctive. Because if he doesn't, who will? And there's more, oh so much more, to this intricate thing we call language. What does it mean?, where did it come from? And how would ancient Babylonians write your name, anyway?
posted by headspace (26 comments total)

 
Going through school, I noticed that the two groups of people who used subjunctive mood correctly and consistenly were my older professors and my more adept but less slang-proficient ESL (English as a second language) students. The former group wouldn't deign to violate the rules and the latter weren't comfortable enough with them yet to go around them.
posted by alumshubby at 9:59 AM on September 16, 2002


If the subjunctive was to disappear, so what?
posted by soyjoy at 10:11 AM on September 16, 2002


take it from someone suffering spanish - the last thing english needs is the subjunctive. it's already used so infrequently (even less in english english than american english, iirc) that it makes no sense to have it at all (note that almost all the examples are for "to be" - hardly any other verb changes).

and i wish it would disappear from spanish as well (is that sentence subjunctive? i think it is in spanish...)
posted by andrew cooke at 10:12 AM on September 16, 2002


Moods like the subjunctive are one of the things that make the English language so interesting. Inefficient and difficult to master? Perhaps, but so many eloquent possibilities!
posted by tommyspoon at 10:16 AM on September 16, 2002


The subjunctive is disappearing? Allah be praised!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:17 AM on September 16, 2002


...where did it come from?

Obviously, language is too complex to have an "evolutionary origin," it must be the product of intelligent design. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)
posted by norm29 at 10:25 AM on September 16, 2002


Parents in all cultures use baby talk.
posted by xowie at 10:38 AM on September 16, 2002


If the subjunctive was to disappear, so what?

Clever. Very clever. :)
posted by CreequeAlley at 10:42 AM on September 16, 2002


Er...whats the point, when NOT using them works just as well...its like people insisting on me using 'Bob and I' rather than 'me and Bob'. I know why its wrong, but that doesn't stop me (and Bob) from using it...
posted by Orange Goblin at 10:47 AM on September 16, 2002


I agree completely with Andrew Cooke. As someone who has taken quite a few years of Spanish, I can say easily that the subjunctive it by far the most annoying and useless verb tense ever. And if you ask native speakers to explain the subjunctivo to you, usually all you get in return is a quizzical look and a bit of a grin.

And yes, andrew, that sentence would be subjunctive in Spanish, since it starts with "I wish". Putos.
posted by Ufez Jones at 11:10 AM on September 16, 2002


I happen to enjoy the subjective tense. It serves to separate the grammar snobs from the rest of you people.
posted by katieinshoes at 11:21 AM on September 16, 2002


Does Spanish have multiple subjunctives?
posted by emmling at 11:40 AM on September 16, 2002


indeed.

Orange Goblin, how did you survive high school? (assuming you went to an English speaking one)

I have opinions of English - which I shall keep to myself ;)
posted by firestorm at 11:43 AM on September 16, 2002


In my mind, proper english is defined by consensus not by out of date tomes.

Proper english is what the majority of english speakers use, regardless of what some old Queen's English text book says.
posted by canucklehead at 12:05 PM on September 16, 2002


emmling, there is a past subjunctive and a present subjunctive (can't remember if there's a future tense as well). The present is used mainly when trying to say I wish, I hope, I want, etc. Things that are indefinite.

It's not a huge change, but some of the verbs have very odd subjunctive combinations (usually the ones that have wierd conjugations as it is i.e. tener, ir, saber, etc. and the stem changers throw in an odd loop as always).
posted by Ufez Jones at 12:31 PM on September 16, 2002


Thanks, Ufez. I was just wondering, as I've never taken Spanish. German has two, though.
posted by emmling at 12:37 PM on September 16, 2002


It's true that there's a consensus, which varies from population to population, but there's also typically a "standard" which, if you deviate too far from it, marks you as uneducated, i.e., lower-class. For example, if you know that subjunctive is a mood, not a tense, you are among the creme-de-la-creme. ;)
posted by kindall at 12:50 PM on September 16, 2002


Er...whats the point, when NOT using them works just as well...its like people insisting on me using 'Bob and I' rather than 'me and Bob'.

"Bob and I" is misused much more often than "Bob and me."
posted by hilker at 1:04 PM on September 16, 2002 [1 favorite]


I went to Providence, RI not long ago. I'd heard there was a local fish called scrod that was particularly tasty. I called a cab, and asked the driver "Would you take me somewhere I could get scrod?" and he said "That's the first time I've heard that question in the pluperfect subjunctive."
posted by Nicolae Carpathia at 1:43 PM on September 16, 2002 [1 favorite]


and he said "That's the first time I've heard that question in the pluperfect subjunctive."

Oh, he did not. But thanks for the laugh. (That's the first time I've heard that joke in any tense.)
posted by soyjoy at 2:07 PM on September 16, 2002


soyjoy, it's an old one. Maybe even all the cabbies in scrod-plentiful areas know it ...

I'm definitely a descriptivist in terms of language rather than a prescriptivist -- that is, I believe that things like pidgin or supposed hillbillyisms (ain't, axed) make the language richer. That doesn't mean, however, that I can't argue in favor of other things which keep the language richer -- like the subjunctive. Sure, it's used pretty rarely in conversational English; but some of the places it is used might surprise you. Certainly nobody's going to be sending postcards anytime soon inscrawled Wish you are here. There's formal, written language, and informal, conversational language, and they don't need to be treated exactly the same. The subjunctive will survive for many more generations in formal writing.

I don't think people who routinely mangle Bob and me will ever realize how jarring it sounds in the wrong place (and I don't mean Bob and me're goin' down to the bar), but something of it may be conveyed by my niece's insistence, at middle school age, of using her as a generic pronoun, irrespective of gender. My nephew grabs a ball? Her won't give it back to me. At one level it's interesting, but there's a very important level at which language is simply communication. If I see a Bob and me in even informal writing it's just as jarring.
posted by dhartung at 2:56 PM on September 16, 2002


God Save the Subjunctive. Because if he doesn't, who will?

In A.D. 2101
I, for one, would welcome our new subjunctive overlord.

I'm sorry, it won't happen again.
posted by stinglessbee at 3:07 PM on September 16, 2002


and he said "That's the first time I've heard that question in the pluperfect subjunctive."

Not only isn't it new, it isn't in the pluperfect.
posted by macrone at 3:53 PM on September 16, 2002


Certainly nobody's going to be sending postcards anytime soon inscrawled "Wish you are here".

In fact, "were" in the context of "wish you were here" could also be indicative mood, imperfect tense. A better example is the distinction between: "I wish I was there (indicative)" versus "I wish I were there (subjunctive)". In my experience, most people would be more likely to use the indicative in that sentence, rather than the subjunctive.
posted by nomis at 4:22 PM on September 16, 2002


In fact, "were" in the context of "wish you were here" could also be indicative mood, imperfect tense.

How? You can't say "I wish you were here the other day." You would say, instead, "I wish you had been here," creating a subjunctive by moving the tense one further into the past than you would in an indicative sentence. It looks the same, but it isn't.
posted by oddovid at 10:05 PM on September 16, 2002


oddovid: nomis's point is that "you were here" (indicative) uses the same verb form, so "wish you were here" could be simply using the indicative for the subjunctive rather than really using the subjunctive; there's no formal way to tell, but the fact that most people use the former when there is a formal difference, as in the first singular (nomis's example: "I wish I was there"), suggests that dhartung is engaging in wishful thinking. And Dan -- is "Bob and me" really so jarring? Personally, I find the hypercorrect use of "Bob and I" where "me" is called for ("He called Bob and I to his office") much more jarring, and a good argument against the hopeless attempts of English teachers to hold back the tide of language change. ("Gee, Miss Throckmorton used to tan my hide for saying "Bob and me," so I'd better use "I" everywhere just to be on the safe side...")
posted by languagehat at 8:23 AM on September 17, 2002


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