If I were a rich man: A grammarian on the nettlesome subjunctive

by Ray Prebble / 19 November, 2018
For those of you who think subjunctives sound a bit intellectual, a bit ivory tower, “Get in behind!”, “Bugger off!” and “Shut up!” are all heavily disguised examples of subjunctives. Photo/Getty

For those of you who think subjunctives sound a bit intellectual, a bit ivory tower, “Get in behind!”, “Bugger off!” and “Shut up!” are all heavily disguised examples of subjunctives. Photo/Getty

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How to use the subjunctive.

I had a friend at university who was my lab partner in biology of plants. He was fiercely independent, and once spent more than an hour taking a tyre off his Honda 125 when someone else’s hand on the tyre iron would have got the job done in a flash. When I pointed this out, he quoted his father: “It’s a Ford and Holden thing. I can’t afFord to pay someone to help, but I hate feeling beHolden to people who’ve done me a favour.”

Beholden is one of those nice old words that are doomed to drop from the language, and with it that car joke. It’s something of a relict: a chunk of language that has survived from an earlier period and is only used in very specific circumstances. Like hue in “hue and cry” and beck in “beck and call”. Beck does mean “a gesture requesting attention”, but a bloke may get odd looks if he says, “Hang on, I’ll just beck the waitress.”

There are also whole classes of barely surviving relicts that can cause problems because they’re not confined to a single phrase you toss into the conversation when you’re feeling frisky. Subjunctives are a good example. If you find yourself writing “If I were you”, then you are using the subjunctive form of the verb to be. Normally were is the plural form of was, of course, but here it is used to “express what is imagined or wished or possible”, to quote the Concise Oxford.

So it’s not a different tense, like was and is. It’s a different mood of the verb. If that sounds odd, just think of the difference between a question and a command. There’s no change in the tense of the verbs used, just a change in, well, mood.

Subjunctives can cause various headaches, especially if you’re trying to sound a bit formal in your writing. For example:

If, in the light of recent evidence, the chairperson was to recommend… might sound okay, but some fuss-pot might criticise your grammar. They will want you to use the subjunctive:

If, in the light of recent evidence, the chairperson were to recommend…

If that makes you worry about alienating your down-to-earth audience, a compromise is to use the good old indicative:

If, in the light of recent evidence, the board recommends

This has the approval of various grammarians who recognise that in some situations using the subjunctive can make one sound awkward and pretentious.

Other subjunctives occur as parts of stock phrases. “Be that as it may”, “Come what may” and “Far be it from me” might not wind up in everyday conversation that often, but you might find yourself reaching for them when composing a letter to your manager explaining why you got drunk and threw up on a VIP at the work party. In this situation, resorting to archaic formalities could seem just the go.

What may end up in a letter to your MP is the subjunctive be on its own, especially in a set of recommendations:

We recommend that steps be taken to replace the offensive signage.

You have to admit that sounds better than recommending that steps are taken. A less familiar form of the subjunctive also occurs in recommendations:

We recommend that the project undergo a full review.

This crops up (to be technical) in the third person singular, where once again what looks like a plural is in fact the subjunctive. In both cases the subjunctive rather nicely conveys something that you want to happen rather than what is currently happening.

Many people find themselves using one or other of these subjunctive forms without really knowing why, which can make the usage hard to defend to baffled colleagues, and probably means there are situations where your instincts run dry.

But for those of you who think subjunctives sound a bit intellectual, a bit ivory tower, “Get in behind!”, “Bugger off!” and “Shut up!” are all heavily disguised examples of subjunctives (with the desired future state thankfully obscured). You can’t get less ivory tower than that.

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.

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