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The Technical Stylist: The Subjunctive Is Dead! Long Live the Subjunctive!

by Kathy Underwood

If you read what most pundits have to say about the subjunctive mood, you would be convinced that this little verb mood will soon pass into history along with "thee" and "thou." Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002) provides this perspective:

The historical grammarians show that it [[the subjunctive mood]] has, in fact, been in decline since Old English, when the modal auxiliaries began to take over some of its functions.

Perhaps, Archaic...Is the Subjunctive Dead?

After all, the most familiar subjunctive phrases do sound a bit archaic when you think about it:
  • as it were
  • be that as it may
  • far be it from me
  • if I were you
  • if need be
  • Long live the Queen! (How do we know this is subjunctive? You wouldn’t say “The Queen live.”)
And, of course, there are holdovers in legal and parliamentary language: “I second the motion that this Parliament be dissolved.”

But the Subjunctive is Alive

English speakers (particularly speakers of British English) tend to avoid the subjunctive and use the conditional instead. Nonetheless, the subjunctive is alive and well—it’s used by many writers, and most often it’s used correctly.

The Subjunctive Shows Up

The curious thing about the subjunctive is that it’s often invisible—it’s only “visible” under certain circumstances:
  • clauses with the verb “be”: in the present subjunctive and in the 1st& 3rd person of the past subjunctive. Example: Banking regulations dictate that risk assessments be submitted each November.
  • clauses with any verb: 3rd person singular in the present subjunctive; the future subjunctive; present negative subjunctive. Example: It is essential that the employee work no longer than a 24-hour shift.

The Use of the Subjunctive

Consider what are probably the most frequent uses of the subjunctive in technical communication: in dependent clauses that begin with "that" or "if" and that express one of the following, both of which are considered to be contrary to fact (Grammarians use the term “contrary to fact” because whatever is being demanded or recommended “hasn’t yet become a reality,” as in “it hasn’t happened yet.”):

Used to indicate a possibility, a necessity, a mandate, a recommendation, or just something that you believe is really, really important. These kinds of subjunctives are sometimes called hortatory or mandative. Example: It is recommended that the machine be restarted before users access the new application.

Used to indicate a condition contrary to possibility. Example: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Used to indicate the hypothetical. But this is a trickier use of the subjunctive, which often begins with "if". The problem is that "if" clauses can be either factual or contrary to fact. Here’s a clearly subjunctive instance in an "if" clause.

If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.

But which verb form would you use in this sentence?:

If the machine was/were restarted, the application would work.

Roy Copperud (American Usage and Style: The Consensus) reports that “the consensus . . . overwhelmingly favors "If it were" over the phrase "If it was" for conditions contrary to fact.” But the point of sentences such as the one above about the machine, is that we don’t know one way or another. Here, Copperud recommends that “the writer must distinguish between a statement of a timeless condition contrary to fact and the statement of a simple condition relating to the past. If you’re editing a technical document, the likelihood is that you’re talking about the simple past, so If the machine was (or is) restarted, the application would work.

Page last modified on Thursday, April 28, 2011 06:41:44pm EDT
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