Posted by: Lenna | August 25, 2009


Whilst looking through some articles on the web about language us, I came across this:

“God Save the Subjunctive” is a site which both explains and defends the subjunctive mood in English. The issue of prescriptivism versus descriptivism is clear throughout the website. Although the author mainly describes and exemplifies the subjunctive, it is clear that they believe it should not die out. In this case, is there anything wrong with that? Or is it just that someone has found an interesting aspect of the English language that they want to defend from the view that it’s useless and overly complicated?

What interested me most about the site was the examples page, and how so many of them are things I would say, automatically, without thinking about them. Many of the examples, as the author points out, are identical in form to the non-subjunctive (indicative), which makes where and when it “should” be used seem hard, but in the forms that are different, it seems perfectly natural to me to use the subjunctive form. I wonder how much this is affected by my sociolinguistic background, and how much of it is just part of my linguistic knowledge of English.

As a student of French, I know I find it hard in that language to know when to use a subjunctive form. I also know that I’m not the only one. But if you think about it, it’s not really that different to in English. Many of the same sorts of sentences justify its use. I would guess that it’s so much harder in French precisely because my understanding of the subjunctive in English is unconscious. Or even more generally, that it’s harder in a second language than a first because second language learning tends to be more conscious rather than automatic.

So what should we make of the subjunctive? Is it a useless form, fading out of use? Is it fading at all? Is it really appropriate as linguists to make that sort of judgement about its worth? And is it really that strange to use? Or is it just often camouflaged, and ingrained in our linguistic knowledge so that we don’t actually know what the rules governing it are? Something to think about.


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