The English subjunctive is dead. (Via avva.)


  1. Lest he forgets sounds AWFUL! I thought it was an -ism of like sort as internets.
    P.S. Sorry you missed the second language quiz!

  2. My bet is that it’s a computer correction of the stock phrase. “Lest” is also almost never seen; I’m trying to remember other instances of its use.

  3. Good thing no one with a brain will ever follow any precedents set by the Toronto Sun.

  4. Michael Farris says

    Well the subjunctive is a pretty marginal thing in English anyway, so I’m not going to mourn its passing (if that’s what this is instead of a computer glitch as zizka suggests).
    But then I always interpreted the subjunctives in “America the Beautiful” as past tenses:
    God shed his grace on Thee
    and crown Thy good with brotherhood
    the first has the same for present and past tense and the second is extremely close to homophonous (not different enough to be noticed in singing).
    an alternative interpretation is
    God (already) shed his grace on Thee
    and (now Thou should[st?]) crown Thy good with brotherhood

  5. Bah! The English subjunctive is alive and well.
    So “correct” English is “I wish I were a millionaire.”
    People actually say “I wish I was a millionaire.”
    Nobody says “I wish I am a millionaire.”
    So this form of the subjunctive happense to coincide with a form of the past. Big deal – verb forms coincide is the Romance and Germanic languages too.
    (Of course the example on the newspaper is another form and I agree this form might be on its last legs even if it does sound horrible)

  6. I hope Zizka’s correct about the computer, but even so, it means nobody looked at the headline and saw anything wrong with it before it went out.
    So this form of the subjunctive happens to coincide with a form of the past.
    But if there is no form that is unambiguously subjunctive, how can the subjunctive be said to exist?

  7. aldiboronti says

    Has it ever existed in English? Was there a subjunctive in Old English?

  8. Yes. There’s a brief discussion here; I particularly like the conclusion:
    “In such cases you should resist the temptation to guess whether a verb is indicative or subjunctive. Rather, wherever you can’t distinguish mood it simply doesn’t exist.”

  9. It once caused me considerable pain to see a newspaper headline (the subject was a slavery memorial) proclaim: LEST WE NOT FORGET!
    Come again?
    I can only surmise that the writer had mixed up “let’s not forget” with “lest we forget” and come up with the infelicitous blend that said the opposite of what the writer intended.
    Andrew, what do you mean “people don’t say…”? Am I not people? Sure, I don’t say, “I wish I were a millionaire”, but only because lucre doesn’t interest me. If it did, I would. The use of the past simple in the place of the subjunctive still makes me wince (but, thankgodedly, no visibly).

  10. LH:
    But if there is no form that is unambiguously past, how can the past be said to exist?
    Anyway, in the majority of utterances of this kind the listener will not believe you were wishing to have been a millionaire at some prior occasion so context provides the disambiguation, like it does in every language in uncountable situations.
    Don’t worry, I’m just generalising. I also use the “subjunctive were” when I’m speaking consciously. But nobody I grew up with does. It doesn’t seem to be part of suburban Australian English middle-class vernacular any more.
    I’m just saying there is a “prescriptive subjunctive” and a “vernacular subjunctive” but there is not a lack of a subjunctive, at least after verbs of wishing.

  11. Michael Farris says

    “If I were a millionaire …”
    “If I was a millionaire …”
    are both conditionals (the same conditional I guess) and not subjunctives. At least that’s how it’s taught in most EFL courses (Depending on the textbook, there are 3 or 5 or some strange number of English conditionals …)
    Strangely I probably would say “If I were …” but I prefer “If I was …” since it represents a nice (imho) regularization.
    But then I wouldn’t mind getting rid of ‘were’ altogether in favor of ‘was’ and replacing ‘am’ with ‘are’. But that is is absolutely not a proposal and I certainly don’t expect anyone here to think these are good ideas.

  12. Andrew: Understood. I’m no prescriptivist either.
    Michael: The “if” might well make it a conditional (I don’t know if it does), but the “were” is a past subjunctive.
    And I don’t want it all smoothed out. It’s the irregularities that make language such a pleasure.

  13. It’s the irregularities that make language such a pleasure.
    Amen, brother!

  14. Michael:
    Thanks for the subjunctive vs conditional points. I think I analyzed my own language after learning Spanish and remembered that the subjunctive comes after verbs of wishing in that language.
    It’s the irregularities that make language such a pleasure.
    I bought an old paperback of “Teach Yourself Turkish” today and learned what an exceptionally regular language it is.
    But now I’m wondering, which language is the most riddled with irregularities?

  15. Michael Farris says

    The problem with irregularities (esp. in English) is that to survive they have to be common, otherwise they tend to be regularized.
    Correct me if I’m mistaken, but only one verb has a past subjunctive that differs from a simple past and that only works in the first and second person singular. That’s a regularization just waiting to happen, which it is.
    Even the regular subjunctive is a) not very common b) has relatively few forms that differ from the indicative, which is why it’s losing ground to the indicative (with maybe a ‘should’ once in a while when the indicative doesn’t cut it by itself “I suggest that he should go”.
    On the other hand, ‘am’ is common enough that it won’t be regularized anytime soon, though ‘aren’t I’ is established for a negative question (amn’t I is nice, but too Irish for decent folk [note: humor, humor, not serious, humor]) and ‘am I not’ sounds too Miss Grundyish.
    was and were are sort of between, the only verb with more than one form in the past tense, but the tense is used enough to keep the distinction current (though there are regularization tendencies even there).Though these don’t work the same for everyone, I’ve known British people who say “It were”, which is apparently common in spoken usage.
    As for most irregularities, in Europe I’d put money on some Slavic language or other or maybe Estonian (I think it has more irregularities than Finnish).

  16. Most irregularities? That’s an interesting question; I’ll have to think about it.

  17. As for most irregularities, in Europe I’d put money on some Slavic language or other or maybe Estonian (I think it has more irregularities than Finnish).
    But is Finnish a particularly irregular language? I’ve never heard it described as such.

  18. Brian Butler says

    In English there are both present and past subjunctive forms. Little remains of the former except for “were” as in “Were I in your position…”. Used in an optative manner the present subjunctive is,in fact,still current e.g. “Long live the Queen”, “God save America”. (In the later case it would indeed be presumptious for even an agnostic to regard it as an imperative!) Though technically archaic, it is heard every night on both sides of the pond in bed-time stories: “Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones etc.” But “Be that as it may” may still heard in normalconversation. In addition I, myself, commonly use it in some commands,e.g.”I insist/require/demand that he do it/come here/ leave immediately”, though this usage would normally be confined to formal, written British English, and appears no longer to be a form taught in ESL.

  19. Brian Butler says

    ERRATUM: In today’s comment for “former” read “latter” or it makes no sense. Sorry BHB

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