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Old 02-26-2004, 06:22 AM
excaudate excaudate is offline
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The English subjunctive: How and Whence?

How does the English subjunctive form work, and from where did it come?
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Old 02-26-2004, 06:31 AM
jjimm jjimm is offline
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Old 02-26-2004, 07:29 AM
Sutremaine Sutremaine is offline
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How does it work? I don't know, but I can tell you what it's for and how to use it (probably).

A good example of subjuctive use is:

'If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.'

Here, 'were' is used as the subjunctive. This changes the meaning to 'wishes aren't horse, but if they were...'

English is one of the few languages that uses the subjunctive (case?) extensively. For example:

'If he hadn't been drinking, he wouldn't have had an accident'

would, in Chinese, be:

'He had an accident because he was drinking.'

Much more concise, but using the subjunctive allows to to mention stuff that has nothing to do with what really happened.

'Had it been in a tropical rainforest beyond the imagination of even the greatest of the world's minds, surrounded by the brightest and most bizarre of nature's creations, it still would have been the object of curiosity and awe.'

But it wasn't. But it's a nice image, isn't it?
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Old 02-26-2004, 08:46 AM
JHW JHW is offline
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Ironically, we learned most of our English grammar in French class. But here's how it was explained to me:

An English sentence that avoids the subjunctive tense:

I asked her to answer my question.

The same idea in a sentence using the subjunctive tense:

I asked that she answer my question.

We don't often recognise this tense because most English verb forms look the same. Romance languages use the subjunctive much more, although I know that in spoken French people tend to avoid it. In Spanish it's quite common.
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Old 02-26-2004, 09:09 AM
Nametag Nametag is offline
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First off, it's the subjunctive MOOD -- not a tense or a voice.

Second, there are two of them -- the first subjunctive and the second subjunctive. The first subjunctive is the one in JHW's post. It is used to express the result of a command, order, wish, or desire, and sometimes to express some uncertainty. It takes the form of a naked infinitive: "The queen demanded that he be brought to his knees in her presence"; " The law requires that your headlights be aimed 15º from the horizontal"; "Be he alive or be he dead..."

The second subjunctive is the one in Sutremaine's post. It is used to express a condition which is contrary to fact, and it takes the form of the thrid person plural past tense: "If I were you, I'd be running away now"; "If I were a woman, I'd... " um, skip that one. Both subjunctives can be used with any verb, but it's indistinguishable from a regular past tense with most of them, which is why we always use "to be" to demonstrate it.

The subjunctive mood, as used in English, is derived from German, and corresponds roughly to their usage (so I am told -- I don't speak German).
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Old 02-26-2004, 09:18 AM
bordelond bordelond is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sutremaine
For example:

'If he hadn't been drinking, he wouldn't have had an accident'

would, in Chinese, be:

'He had an accident because he was drinking.'

Much more concise, but using the subjunctive allows to to mention stuff that has nothing to do with what really happened.
This Chinese translation doesn't ring true to me. Surely speakers of Chinese can speak of hypothetical situations, even if they wouldn't use the familiar subjunctive of English, French, Spanish et al?
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Old 02-26-2004, 09:54 AM
Malacandra Malacandra is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JHW
Ironically, we learned most of our English grammar in French class. But here's how it was explained to me:

An English sentence that avoids the subjunctive tense:

I asked her to answer my question.

The same idea in a sentence using the subjunctive tense:

I asked that she answer my question.

We don't often recognise this tense because most English verb forms look the same. Romance languages use the subjunctive much more, although I know that in spoken French people tend to avoid it. In Spanish it's quite common.
ISTR being taught in French that a waiter, annoyed with his minute tip, might say "Que voudriez-vous que je fasse avec trente-cinq centimes?" - literally "What would you that I do with 35 centimes?", where we would say "What do you want me to do with..."

And yes, the English subjunctive mood (not tense, which is past/present/future/etc, not voice which is active/passive) is hard to spot. Occasionally it can be picked up because it looks like an infinitive stem instead of the expected "person" of the verb. For instance, at one point in the Holy Communion service in the prayer-book we used when I was a lad there was the direction The sermon (if there be one) which I took as an archaism, but was actually subjunctive be instead of indicative is.

Lucky is he who never had to learn Latin, in which there are more subjunctive verb forms than you can shake a stick at, if you be so minded. Accidence will happen...
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Old 02-26-2004, 10:19 AM
Merkwurdigliebe Merkwurdigliebe is offline
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Germain ain't no piece of cake. They have a special conjugation of verbs when they are used in inderect quotations. Plus they use the subjunctive pretty normally, I suppose as much as we do in English. I can't really be the authority, as there are most likely 3 more different subjunctive cases.
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Old 02-26-2004, 10:30 AM
seaworthy seaworthy is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JHW
I know that in spoken French people tend to avoid it. In Spanish it's quite common.
Really? I rather like it. I remember it being a lot easier to remember than some of the other conjugations (for regular verbs, of course). And it sounds really cool. There's a French nursery rhyme I like to tell my neice (I'm trying to make her bilingual) that goes si le loup y etait, il nous mangerait which sounds so much cooler than if the wolf were here, he would eat us.
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Old 02-26-2004, 11:58 AM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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The subjunctive is used in subordinate clauses where the implied situation is contrary to fact, or where a hypothetical situation is advanced. "She asked that he give her a kiss" is a construction where a hypothesis is advanced -- whether he does kiss her or not is immaterial; the point is that she's proposing a concept not yet factual.

English has present and past subjunctives, but for most verbs the past subjunctive is indistinguishable from the indicative. The past subjunctive of "to be" is "were" in all numbers and persons except the obsolescent "thou" 2nd person singular, which takes "wert" -- perhaps the rarest verb form in accurately constructed English.

The present subjunctive is extant but rare, owing to the fact that most clauses calling for the subjunctive are also required to be put in the "conditional past" -- resulting in the "If I were you..." constructions. But the present subjunctive of all verbs is the naked base form of the verb, equal except for "to be" to the present indicative without the third-person-singular "-s" ending -- and for "to be" is the form "be" in all numbers and persons. ("Thou" forms constitute an exception so rare as to not be worth discussing.)
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Old 02-26-2004, 02:30 PM
trupa trupa is offline
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Thank you very much indeed, Nametag, for clearing up this native French speaker's years of confusion with what the English speakers call subjunctive, in two concise paragraphs. It was never clear to me, because it seemed to me to be the English equivalent of our conditional tense (the second subjunctive) while there seemed to be no equivalent to the French subjunctive. The first subjunctive you mention is the exact equivalence of the French subjunctive, and my year of puzzelment are at an end.

I have copied your post for future reference.

Let Nametag henceforth be knownas the sunbjunctive king!
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Old 02-26-2004, 04:31 PM
hibernicus hibernicus is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by seaworthy
Really? I rather like it. I remember it being a lot easier to remember than some of the other conjugations (for regular verbs, of course). And it sounds really cool. There's a French nursery rhyme I like to tell my neice (I'm trying to make her bilingual) that goes si le loup y etait, il nous mangerait which sounds so much cooler than if the wolf were here, he would eat us.
This example doesn't contain a subjunctive, though. It's just an example of the rule "jamais de conditionnel avec 'si'" - in an "if" phrase, you don't use the conditional form but the indicative form.
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Old 02-26-2004, 07:13 PM
London_Calling London_Calling is offline
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So this awkward sounding New York (Brooklyn maybe) grammar is correct:

"You want that I should call you back ?"
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Old 02-26-2004, 08:38 PM
Eva Luna Eva Luna is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by London_Calling
So this awkward sounding New York (Brooklyn maybe) grammar is correct:

"You want that I should call you back ?"
I wouldn't be at all surprised if that were proper Yiddish structure. I'd ask my grandmother, who is a (rusty) native speaker, but every time I ask her something like that she ends up in a long and loud argument about it with my grandfather, who thinks he knows better (he usually doesn't).
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Old 02-26-2004, 09:18 PM
iwakura43 iwakura43 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
The present subjunctive is extant but rare, owing to the fact that most clauses calling for the subjunctive are also required to be put in the "conditional past" -- resulting in the "If I were you..." constructions. But the present subjunctive of all verbs is the naked base form of the verb, equal except for "to be" to the present indicative without the third-person-singular "-s" ending -- and for "to be" is the form "be" in all numbers and persons. ("Thou" forms constitute an exception so rare as to not be worth discussing.)
Polycarp, can you provide an example of this? The description is technically information, but I can't quite "see" it. Oh, and thanks for clearing up "if I was" vs "If I were" for me
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Old 02-26-2004, 09:28 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by iwakura43
Polycarp, can you provide an example of this? The description is technically information, but I can't quite "see" it. Oh, and thanks for clearing up "if I was" vs "If I were" for me
The "that" clauses that take the subjunctive are usually in the present -- "Ikawura43 asked that Polycarp provide an example," for example

Or consider Patrick Henry's, "If this be treason, make the most of it!" (Obviously Henry did not consider his actions treason, so he used the subjunctive.)
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Old 02-26-2004, 09:30 PM
Nametag Nametag is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by trupa
Thank you very much indeed, Nametag, for clearing up this native French speaker's years of confusion with what the English speakers call subjunctive, in two concise paragraphs. It was never clear to me, because it seemed to me to be the English equivalent of our conditional tense (the second subjunctive) while there seemed to be no equivalent to the French subjunctive. The first subjunctive you mention is the exact equivalence of the French subjunctive, and my year of puzzelment are at an end.

I have copied your post for future reference.

Let Nametag henceforth be knownas the sunbjunctive king!
Well, thanks! More vanity-fodder for my sig! (And you, in turn, are most welcome)
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Old 02-26-2004, 10:13 PM
ultrafilter ultrafilter is offline
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In The Elements Of Grammar, the author distinguishes between conditions contrary to fact and non-commital conditions.

"If John were angry at Tom, Tom would apologize" suggests that John is not angry at Tom at the moment. "If John is angry at Tom, Tom will apologize" suggests that the speaker doesn't know or doesn't care whether John is actually angry at Tom.

I don't know how well this agrees with modern usage, but it's interesting to note.
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Old 02-26-2004, 10:15 PM
ultrafilter ultrafilter is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
("Thou" forms constitute an exception so rare as to not be worth discussing.)
I know how to say that form. How is it spelled?
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Old 02-26-2004, 10:41 PM
Koxinga Koxinga is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Eva Luna
I wouldn't be at all surprised if that were proper Yiddish structure. I'd ask my grandmother, who is a (rusty) native speaker, but every time I ask her something like that she ends up in a long and loud argument about it with my grandfather, who thinks he knows better (he usually doesn't).
I remember reading about this Yiddish structure when I was studying German. In Deutsch, it would be something like, "moecthest du dass ich dich noch einmal telefoniere?" I know, mein Deutsch ist sehr schlecht.

Danshi wo hen hui jiang Zhongwen!
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Old 02-26-2004, 11:34 PM
TJdude825 TJdude825 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ultrafilter
In The Elements Of Grammar, the author distinguishes between conditions contrary to fact and non-commital conditions.

"If John were angry at Tom, Tom would apologize" suggests that John is not angry at Tom at the moment. "If John is angry at Tom, Tom will apologize" suggests that the speaker doesn't know or doesn't care whether John is actually angry at Tom.

I don't know how well this agrees with modern usage, but it's interesting to note.
I'm pretty sure this is commonly used in Spanish, at least in "Mexican Spanish." Or something similar. Actually, I think the case in which the speaker doesn't know or care is probably subjunctive, at least in Spanish. Anyway, here's my hopefully accurate cite:

If I remember last year's lesson on the subjunctive correctly, ¿Crees que vaya a llover? and ¿Crees que va a llover? both mean "Do you think it is going to rain?" However, the first (where "going to" is in the subjunctive vaya) implies that the speaker thinks it probably won't rain, whereas the second (which uses the indicative va) implies that the speaker thinks it probably will. Any hispanohablantes to back me up on this?
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Old 02-27-2004, 03:49 PM
Hari Seldon Hari Seldon is offline
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I have the impression that the subjunctive is moribund in England. When I published a book with a London publisher, the English proof-reader marked several dozen dozen subjunctives that (s)he assumed were the wrong number. They were almost all "that" clauses such as: "In order that a category have ...". I left them all as they were and never heard again. Afterwards, I checked with some Brits who mainly seemed confused by my question, but basically confirmed my observation. I imagine the subjunctive will eventually disappear in all dialects of English.
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Old 02-27-2004, 05:04 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ultrafilter
I know how to say that form. How is it spelled?
You add -st to most verbs, -est where tradition views the consonant cluster as unpronouncable. To be is "thou beest," generally spelled with a diaresis (? - "umlaut" -- reclining colon) over the second e to make clear it's not a misspelling of "beast" or something.
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Old 02-28-2004, 05:33 AM
jjimm jjimm is offline
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The most notable public use of the subjunctive in the UK recently was in the incredibly catchy pop song Sweet Dreams my LA ex Rachel Stevens.

Rather pathetically, my wife and I pricked up our ears and simultaneously said "subjunctive!" the first time we heard the chorus of this very catchy tune:
Quote:
If I were in your shoes
I'd worry of the effects
You've had your say but now it's my turn
Sweet dreams my LA ex
However, it is not the delectable Ms Stevens we have to thank for this decision, but the songwriter Cathy Dennis.
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Old 02-28-2004, 05:58 AM
London_Calling London_Calling is offline
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jjimm - On so many levels, you're a sad, sad bastard !



Eva Luna - For clearing that up, I thang yew.
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Old 02-28-2004, 06:10 AM
jjimm jjimm is offline
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jjimm - On so many levels, you're a sad, sad bastard !
Hey, no insults in GQ. Take it to the pit, buddy.


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Old 02-28-2004, 06:38 AM
London_Calling London_Calling is offline
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Apologies Bjorn, give my regards to Benny.
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Old 05-01-2004, 07:28 AM
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Sorry to revive the thread, but Nametag's sig line drew my attention to it (I'd managed to miss it the first time around). And yes, he is the subjunctive king, although he may have to battle it out with Polycarp!

An example:

If wishes were fishes, we would all cast nets.

Everyone in this thread agrees that were in the above sentence is subjunctive mood, past tense. What I want to know is, what is would? I would (there it is again, that pesky verb!) say subjunctive mood, future tense, but I would appreciate someone whose knowledge exceeds mine in this area confirming or denying (with further explanation).

BTW, chalk me up as another person who, while using the subjunctive properly all my life, never recognized it as a distinct entity until I studied Latin in high school. Even in my childhood in the sixties, they no longer taught such things in what is somewhat ironically (under the circumstances) known as grammar school.
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Old 05-01-2004, 10:46 AM
Balthisar Balthisar is offline
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Conditional.
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Old 05-01-2004, 01:39 PM
shijinn shijinn is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bordelond
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sutremaine
For example:

'If he hadn't been drinking, he wouldn't have had an accident'

would, in Chinese, be:

'He had an accident because he was drinking.'

Much more concise, but using the subjunctive allows to to mention stuff that has nothing to do with what really happened.
This Chinese translation doesn't ring true to me. Surely speakers of Chinese can speak of hypothetical situations, even if they wouldn't use the familiar subjunctive of English, French, Spanish et al?
a chinese might say "ru guo ta mei you he jiu de hua, jiu bu hui fa sheng yi wai le." which literally translate to "if he didn't drink wine supposedly, then wouldn't happen accident". this is a normal 'if/then' sentence used in everyday speech. i'm not sure if it fits the definition of a subjunctive in this case.
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Old 05-01-2004, 03:29 PM
Nametag Nametag is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AvhHines
If wishes were fishes, we would all cast nets.

Everyone in this thread agrees that were in the above sentence is subjunctive mood, past tense. What I want to know is, what is would? I would (there it is again, that pesky verb!) say subjunctive mood, future tense, but I would appreciate someone whose knowledge exceeds mine in this area confirming or denying (with further explanation).
"Would" is one of the "modal verbs"; it's taken on a life of its own, but it was originally the past tense of "will" (it still is, actually). As such, it's also the form taken by the subjunctive of "will." For some reasons, most modern grammarians and linguists don't call it that any more.

Look at the sentence this way: "When wishes are fishes, we will all cast nets." "Were" and "would" cast both clauses into the subjunctive.
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Old 05-01-2004, 08:13 PM
clairobscur clairobscur is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Nametag
"Would" [.....] was originally the past tense of "will" (it still is, actually) ..

Does it mean that I could say "He would him to..." instead of "He wanted him to..."?
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