Intrepid Reader Barney of Ithaca, NY, writes, “I cringe when airline flight attendants say that “federal regulations require that items are stored beneath the seat.” I want to shout out, “Use the subjunctive!!!!! It should be that federal regulations require that items BE stored beneath the seat.”¹
While I also take note of the infraction, my reaction is more on the order of “Sigh…I guess the subjunctive is dead in English.” Then I try to be excited about knowing that I am seeing history in the making as the language evolves. Someday, “fewer bananas” will sound quaintly archaic. (Are we there yet?) This thought—that I’m a living witness to linguistic change—is merely a survival mechanism, because in truth, I cringe a bit too.
However, in defense of all the “require that items are stored” folks, you have to admit that the English subjunctive is awfully anemic. Its verbs look like other declarative verbs, only past tense, or like the infinitive. They’re very quirky in their behavior. In Barney’s case, it’s properly “requires that you be,” but it could also correctly read “requires you to be.” With other verbs, though, you see different patterns–“wish that you were” (past subjunctive–we know why, it’s expressing non-existence) or “want you to be.” You can’t say “wish that you be” or “want that you be,” when those two constructions would seem analogous to “require that you be.” Why not?
I don’t know anything about the history of the English subjunctive, but its current state is probably a result of the same case/tense implosion that has shaved almost all inflections off our regular verbs–only the 3rd person singular present has that tiny “s” on it, and the past has lost them altogether. We had to start using auxiliary verbs for future and conditional just to clear things up, for godsake. Then, as if to make up for the fact that this might give non-native speakers an easy time of it when learning English, we’ve developed an extensive and completely unpredictable set of irregular past-tense verbs. Bring, brought; eat, ate; take, took; drink, drank. They’re just obscene.
I know my thoughts on this are influenced by Spanish, where the subjunctive is its own, well fleshed out, goddamn tense, thank you very much, with different verb forms and a whole array of uses having to do with influence, desire, non-existence, uncertainty and emotion. It’s initially difficult for an English speaker because of our dearth of it, but once you get it, once you realize that you’re entering a whole different world there, it’s inconceivable not to have it. You hear it constantly, regardless of the sophistication or education level of the speaker. You’d sound foreign and feel like an idiot if you didn’t get it right. (That’s me, occasionally, since I still have an EFL brain, even after 30+ years.)
In contrast, in English, you get the occasional “if I were you” and “require that they be,” and how is someone who’s not a linguist supposed to really get that?
“If he brought me the receipts, I wasn’t aware of it. I was away from my desk yesterday.”
“If he brought me the receipts, I wouldn’t have to nag him about it at tax time.”
Many of my intrepid readers will know that the second sentence is the subjunctive, while the first isn’t. But the first clauses in the two are identical. How do you expect anyone to pick that up? My argument is that the tense has eroded to such an extent that even a well-educated native speaker can be almost unaware of its existence.
Despite the fact that my skin may crawl ever so slightly upon hearing it, I simply have to give “if I was you” a pass except in the most formal of circumstances. It doesn’t cause any confusion, and it’s widely used. “If I were” and “If I was” are currently co-existing; the balance seems to be tipping in the favor of the latter; only time will tell.
For the record, Garner’s Modern American Usage lists six uses for the English subjunctive.
1) conditions contrary to fact. If I were king…
2) suppositions. If I were to go, I couldn’t…
3) wishes. I wish you were my lover.
4) commands. I insisted that he go.
4) suggestions. I suggest that you consider it.
5) statements of necessity. It’s necessary that they be there.
Garner omits any discussion of the fact that some of these are past subjunctive (first three) and some present (last three). It looks from these examples that the past is used with non-existence and the present with influence.
¹Barney might also want to read my musings on the exclamation point.
Perhaps the most well known uses of the subjunctive in popular culture are in The Wizard of Oz—I’d turn back if I were you! and If I Were King of the Forest
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