Pages: [1]
Print
Author Topic: Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive (4-part series)  (Read 3764 times)
Joe Carillo
Administrator
Hero Member
*****

Karma: +52/-2
Posts: 3396


View Profile Email
« on: May 24, 2014, 10:38:32 AM »

My “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times ran “Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive,” a four-part series discussing this admittedly tough aspect of English grammar, in the daily newspaper’s April 12 and 26 and May 10 and 17, 2014 issues. For the benefit of Forum members and guests, I am posting here all four parts of the series and the more substantial reader responses to it.

Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive – Part I

Over the past 12 years that I’ve been writing this column, I called attention every now and then to the recurrent misuse of the English subjunctive by some news reporters and editors and even by some academics. In the beginning, though, I’d let pass most of the faulty sentence constructions without comment on the presumption that they were just proofreading or typographical errors.

Such was my initial presumption when I came across this paraphrase in a news report of an academic official’s statement in 2012 about the Reproductive Health Bill (italicization mine): “The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill is passed by Congress, Villarin said.” Of course, that sentence should be using “be” instead of “is” as linking verb because it is in the subjunctive mood: “The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill be passed by Congress, Villarin said.” But then, who wouldn’t think that a proofreader had only mistakenly replaced the correct “be” in the original manuscript with the wrong “is”?

On the other hand, this commentary by a newspaper columnist in 2009 left little doubt in my mind that he wasn’t conversant with the subjunctive: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimizes his public appearances or goes on self-exile.” With two verbs in a row rendered in the incorrect subjunctive form, it was highly unlikely that time that a proofreading or typographical error was the culprit. A subjunctive-savvy writer would have dropped the “-s” or “-es” from the tail end of the verbs to come up with this correct construction: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimize his public appearances or go on self-exile.” (Note: I used the fictitious name “Romano” here to avoid giving political color to this discussion.)

It’s been quite a while since I last came across a faulty subjunctive construction in the print media, so I began to entertain the notion that perhaps media people had finally licked their problem with subjunctives for good. Imagine my disappointment then when I came across this faulty subjunctive construction a few days ago in—of all places—the editorial of a leading national broadsheet: “It is imperative that the Philippine government takes a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.”

Like the two verbs in that commentary by a newspaper columnist, the verb “takes” in that subjunctive sentence should have dropped the “-s” at its tail end: “It is imperative that the Philippine government take a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.”

That the faulty subjunctive sentence above—and I don’t think that what we have here is a proofreading or typographical fluke—should crop up in the editorial of a leading broadsheet should be a wake-up call for media people to really get to know how to construct subjunctive sentences properly. It would really be a shame if an otherwise well-written reportage or well-argued commentary is needlessly undermined by faulty subjunctive construction.

To help solve this problem, I have decided to do a full-dress review of the subjunctive mood in English starting next week. The emphasis will be on how it differs from the indicative and imperative moods. The review will then take up the admittedly baffling behaviors of verbs in the subjunctive third-person singular, which drop the expected “-s” (or “-es”) at their tail end and take their base form instead; the deviant behavior of “be” in the present-tense subjunctive, in which “be” doesn’t change form at all no matter what person or number is taken by the subject; and the maverick behavior of “be” in subjunctive “if”-clauses, where that verb sticks to the past-tense subjunctive form “were” all throughout regardless of the person and number of its subject.
---------------
Reader responses to this column:

Atty. Roslee M. Formoso says:
April 12, 2014 at 6:29 am

Quote
With reference to the first issue, ” The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill is passed by Congress”……

The phrase is a ‘present to the future participles’, a phrase its tense tenor speaks of the ‘present’ continuing to the future.

“university” as referred as proper noun not a common should first letter in capital’.
Since the statement is present to the future the participle “be” is the correct usage.

Jose Carillo says:
April 12, 2014 at 9:10 am

Atty. Formoso, you are absolutely right in your conclusion that “be” is the correct usage in this sentence: “The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill (is, be) passed by Congress, Villarin said.” But as in the case of your earlier commentary above, I must say that your analysis of that sentence is off the mark in practically all respects. That sentence needs “be” instead of “is” as the form of the linking verb because the sentence is in the subjunctive mood. I do realize that this won’t become self-evident until you get a clear understanding of what the English subjunctive is as opposed to the indicative, so while waiting for the full-scale discussion of the subject in my subsequent columns, you may want to check out in advance all of my postings about subjunctive usage. Simply log on to the Forum (http://josecarilloforum.com/) and do a search of the postings. Good luck!

Atty. Roslee M. Formoso says:
April 12, 2014 at 6:37 am

Quote
In regards to the second issue,” Mr. Romano minimizes his appearances,” is correct. The word “minimizes must agree with appearances,” if you are English Major you will understand what I mean.

Jose Carillo says:
April 12, 2014 at 8:54 am

Atty. Roslee M. Formoso, I suggest that you take the sentence as a whole so you can analyze it properly: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimizes his public appearances or goes on self-exile.” The columnist clearly meant that sentence not as a simple declaration but as an exhortation, thus putting the sentence in the subjunctive mood rather than in the indicative mood. I explain the distinction in detail in my posting in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, “The proper use of the English subjunctive.” Also, I must disagree with your statement that the word “minimizes” must agree with the word “appearances.” The rule on subject-verb agreement doesn’t apply in this particular instance because “minimizes” isn’t a subject and “appearances” isn’t a verb but an object of the preposition. I therefore dare say that if you were an English major before taking up law and this became your understanding of subject-verb agreement, you got it all wrong about that rule. For a clarification of this rule, you may want to check out this Forum posting of mine, “Steeling ourselves against common subject-verb disagreement pitfalls.”

Mauricio Palao says:
April 12, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Quote
Roslee Formoso’s comment betrays a need for better ‘English Teachers’ in our schools. Failing in this we might, perhaps, consider developing our own brand of ‘Pidgin English’ in much the same way as that of Papua New Guinea have theirs, or, a Japanese style ‘Bamboo English’ which is still in use in Okinawa.

Jose A. Carillo says:
April 14, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Mr. Palao, my sense of the situation is that even among the better English teachers in the Philippines, the subjunctive sometimes proves too tough both to comprehend and to teach. It’s indeed one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar, but I beg to disagree with you that we need to develop our own brand of Pidgin English just to avoid dealing with subjunctive sentences. I’d rather that we seize the bull by its horns by taking every opportunity to learn the subjunctive until it becomes second nature to us. This is why I’ll again be doing a full-dress review of the subjunctive in my subsequent columns in The Manila Times. That will be after the Holy Week, starting the April 26 issue. Watch for it!

Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive – Part II:

Two weeks ago, I called attention to this faulty sentence construction in the otherwise well-argued editorial of a leading Metro Manila broadsheet: “It is imperative that the Philippine government takes a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.”

It’s obviously counterintuitive to say that something is grammatically wrong with that sentence. After all, the doer of the action, “the Philippine government,” is in the third-person singular, so following the subject-verb agreement rule, the verb phrase expressing its action should also be in the third-person singular, “takes a firm stand.” Right?

Wrong. In sentences that use a “that”-clause to express the speaker’s insistence that a particular action be taken, the verb in the third-person singular should drop the the “-s” or “-es” at its tail end and take the verb’s base form (its infinitive form without the “to”). This is the parliamentary motion or jussive form of the subjunctive, a rhetorical construction—call it an editorial subjunctive if you will—designed to make the speaker’s personal preference sound more imperative and stately and more convincing than ordinary speech.

That statement from the broadsheet’s editorial is a subjunctive sentence of this kind, so its correct construction is as follows: “It is imperative that the Philippine government take a firm stand against this violation of an international safety agreement and local laws.” This prescription admittedly goes against the grain of what many have learned about English grammar, so it will take some doing before they can use the subjunctive confidently.

To fully understand the workings of the subjunctive, we first need to recall that verbs in English have three general moods; mood is meant here to be that aspect of the verb that expresses the state of mind or attitude of the writer or speaker toward what’s being said.

These three moods are the indicative mood, the imperative mood, and the subjunctive mood.
The indicative, the most familiar of the three moods, conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Statements in the indicative mood seek to give the impression that the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner. Their operative verbs take their normal inflections in all the tenses and typically obey the subject-verb agreement rule at all times.

Indicative sentence stating an objective fact: “In our solar system, Earth is the only planet in the habitable zone” (CNN). Stating an opinion: “Psychologist Jesse Bering says that humanity is evolutionarily hard-wired for God.” Posing a question: “Will using ‘alright’ instead of ‘all right’ mark me as an ignoramus?”

The imperative mood denotes the attitude of a speaker who (1) demands or orders a particular action, (2) makes a request or suggestion, (3) gives advice, or (4) states a prohibition. This mood uses the base form of the operative verb (its infinitive form without the “to”), and is most often used in second-person, present-tense sentences that use an elliptical subject or the unstated second-person pronoun “you.”

Imperative statement demanding a particular action: “Catch that thief!” Making a request or suggestion: “Please let them go.” Giving advice: “Read the instructions carefully before taking that medicine.” Stating a prohibition: “Don’t enter this area.”

The subjunctive mood, which only has present-tense and past-tense forms, is used to communicate the following: (1) a possibility (2) a desire or wishful attitude, (3) insistence on a particular action, (4) doubt about a certain outcome, (5) an unreal situation or an idea contrary to fact, or (6) a request or suggestion. Moreover, when the subjunctive works in tandem with such auxiliary verbs as “could,” “would,” and “should,” it can convey more intricate and sophisticated shades of possibility and conditionality.

We will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

(Continued in the next panel)
« Last Edit: May 24, 2014, 10:42:08 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Joe Carillo
Administrator
Hero Member
*****

Karma: +52/-2
Posts: 3396


View Profile Email
« Reply #1 on: May 24, 2014, 10:40:15 AM »

Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive – Part III

In last week’s column, we made a distinction between the subjunctive mood and the indicative and imperative moods. The subjunctive denotes acts or states that are contingent on possible outcomes of the speaker’s wish, desire, or doubt, while the indicative denotes acts and states in real-world situations and the imperative expresses direct commands or requests.

We have already taken up two deviant behaviors of verbs in the subjunctive mood. First, verbs in the subjunctive third-person singular drop the expected “-s” (or “-es”) at their tail end and take their base form instead, as “learn” does in this sentence: “It is essential that he learn to take criticism gracefully.” And second, the verb “be” in subjunctive “that”-clauses doesn’t change form at all no matter what person or number is taken by its subject: “The president ordered that I be here tonight.” “The president ordered that you be here tonight.” “The president ordered that they be here tonight.”

The subjunctive exhibits a third deviant behavior. The verb “be” in subjunctive “if”-clauses sticks to the past-tense plural form “were” regardless of the person and number of its subject: “She avoided contact with me as if I were a leper.” “He spends as if he were a billionaire.” “They elect their leaders as if integrity were not important.”

Now that we clearly know these three deviant behaviors, let’s now look into how the subjunctive performs these specific tasks: (1) indicate a possibility given a hypothetical situation (2) express a wishful attitude or desire, (3) demand that a particular action be taken, (4) describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact, (5) raise a question about a hypothetical outcome, and (6) express a request or suggestion.

To indicate a possibility given a hypothetical condition. A subjunctive “if” subordinate clause works with a conditional main clause to indicate a possibility, as in this example: “I would buy that building if I had the funds.” Here, the main clause “I would buy that building” uses the auxiliary verb “would” to denote conditionality, and the subjunctive subordinate clause “if I had the funds” is the condition—a possible but unlikely one—for making the purchase. Take note that “had” here is in the subjunctive past tense, as opposed to the indicative form “can get” in this future-tense sentence: “I will buy that building if I can get the funds this week.”

To express a wishful attitude or desire. In “that”-clauses that follow main clauses expressing a wish, the verb consistently takes the subjunctive past tense: “I wish (that) she were more intelligent.” “I wish (that) I were the committee chairman.” “How I wish (that) you were here right now!” The wish or desired outcome is neither a present reality nor a future certainty.

To demand that a particular action be taken. As already taken up in last week’s column, this is the parliamentary motion or jussive form of the subjunctive, which is used to denote an indirect demand, a strong suggestion, or a pointed request: “We ask that the Ombudsman desist from making the primary suspect a state witness.” “It is imperative that we regain market supremacy.” “It is crucial that we take punitive action right now.”

A sentence can likewise take the subjunctive form if its main clause uses certain verbs that convey effort on the part of the speaker to impose his will on other people. Among such verbs are “demand,” “move,” “ask,” and “insist” as well as “propose,” “prefer,” and “recommend,” as in this example: “They demanded [moved, asked, insisted ] that the government raise the minimum daily wage by P125 across the board.” The verb “raise” in the “that”-clause takes the present-tense subjunctive form (the verb’s infinitive form without the “to”) as opposed to the indicative “raises.”

We will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive – Part IV

In last week’s column, we discussed these three specific tasks that are performed by the English subjunctive, namely (1) to indicate a possibility given a hypothetical situation, (2) to express a wishful attitude or desire, and (3) to demand that a particular action be taken. This time we will discuss its three other specific tasks: (4) to describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact, (5) to raise a question about a hypothetical outcome, and (6) to express a request or suggestion.

Before proceeding to Task #4, however, let me add two other subjunctive sentence constructions under Task #3 that we were not able to discuss last week:

(a) When the verb in the “that”-clause comes after a state-of-mind adjective in the main clause such as “decided,” “eager,” “anxious,” or “determined.” Examples: “The school board is decided that the erring principal vacate her post immediately.” “The traffic czar is anxious that every motorist learn defensive driving.” “The talent manager is determined that his protege land the plum movie role.”

(b) When the verb in the “that”-clause comes after a concept expectation noun in the main clause such as “advice,” “condition,” “demand,” “directive,” “intention,” “order,” “proposal,” “recommendation,” “request,” “suggestion,” or “wish.” Examples: “The manager’s advice is that the erring employee resign rather than be fired.” “Their wish is that the country improve its disastrous human rights record.”

Now let’s take up the three other tasks performed by the subjunctive:

4. To describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact. The subjunctive can denote a hypothetical state or outcome given a condition that’s unreal or contrary to fact. The word “if” or “wish” usually indicates such a condition: “If the Internet were not invented, paper encyclopedias would still be a dominant player in the references market.” “How I wish I were with you at the time! I would have told you not to buy that smartphone.” Without “if,” such subjunctive constructions can sometimes take an inverted syntax: “Were our manager more competent, our company wouldn’t be in such dire straights.”

However, when the verb “wonder” or “ask” is used to express an indirect question in “if” constructions denoting an act or state that’s evidently contrary to fact, the subjunctive is uncalled for. The indicative “was” rather than the subjunctive “were” is used instead: “She wondered if the price quoted by her supplier was inclusive of customs duties.” “I was intrigued that the seasoned world traveller asked me if Madagascar was indeed an island in the Pacific.”

5. To raise a question about a hypothetical outcome or to express doubt about certain appearances. Statements that cast doubt on observed behavior or raise a question about a presumed outcome often take the subjunctive form: “She talked about the perils of interbreeding as if she were the world’s most competent genetics authority.” “That would be a logical conclusion if the situation were really as you have testified in court.” “If she were that sure about getting a working visa to the U.S., do you think she would be seeing a new fortune-teller practically every day?”

6. To express a request or suggestion. The subjunctive can be used to formally express a request or suggestion by a speaker of lower rank or social station than the individual being addressed: “We respectfully request that the school board review the course offering in the light of these findings.” “I suggest that the chief executive take the high ground by not interfering in the prosecution of these high-profile criminal cases.”

This ends our review of the English subjunctive. With a clearer understanding of its uses and peculiar grammar behaviors, we should now be able to deal with sentences in this mood as confidently as we do with sentences in the indicative and imperative moods.
----------------
Responses to this column:

Jon Effemey says:
May 10, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Quote
“The school board is decided that the erring principal vacate her post immediately.” “

I am English/English.

This sentence needs correcting! It should be:-
“The school board has decided that the erring principal vacates her post
immediately”

This sentence needs correcting! It should be:-
” “The traffic czar is anxious that every motorist learns defensive driving.” “
and ,
“Their wish is that the country improves its disastrous human rights record.”
vacates, learns, improves!…May be vacate, learn and improve work, but as a native English speaker I would use my version.

But” is ” is definitely wrong. Is “is” present tense, decided is past tense. Therefore has decided. Is deciding? In the process of deciding? This would be present tense.

Also “testified in court” “testified it in court” ? May be this is American English Grammar.

Sorry to be picky, your over all piece is really interesting. My Tagalog to date is extremely challenged.

Jose A. Carillo says:
May 10, 2014 at 4:51 pm

I really hate to say this, Jon, but your aggressively pointed but utterly incorrect revisions of my sample English subjunctive sentences show that you don’t know this mood and form of English at all. This is clear proof that being a native speaker of English is no guarantee of being good in English grammar and usage. True, you can say with confidence that you’re English/English, but I’m sorry that you really don’t know the language whereof you speak—a situation that brings to my mind Prof. Henry Higgins’s singsong lament over “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak English?” in the Lerner and Loewe stage musical “My Fair Lady” (lyrics: http://tinyurl.com/mrqfscw) (video: http://tinyurl.com/n2ns6lr).

This being the case, Jon, I suggest you take a crash course in the English subjunctive posthaste. Regardless of your age and educational attainment, you can begin by studying Parts I-IV of my series of columns in The Manila Times on the subject. If the series doesn’t give you a good handle on the subject, get hold of a copy of my book “Give Your English the Winning Edge.” Study Chapters 77-81. I’m quite positive that they will be an eye-opener to you about this strange and admittedly confusing form and mood of English. The rest of the book will be a bonus, for it should give you a much better understanding and appreciation of the mechanisms of your very own language.

Don’t fret at all about your extremely challenged Tagalog, Jon. I strongly suggest that you mind your English subjunctive first, regardless of whether it’s the British English or the American English variety. Good luck!
Logged

Pages: [1]
Print
Jump to: