Monday, December 05, 2011


Subjunctively moody

In his After Deadline column last week, New York Times editor Philip Corbett criticizes some overly complex sentences, reminding Times writers that, while Times readers needn’t be coddled, meanings need to be clear. One of his suggested corrections refers to this: [...] and Ms. King, who said she would ensure that the program be smart and entertaining. Mr Corbett has this to say:

At the end, there’s no need for the subjunctive be. The original assertion was something like, I will ensure that the program is [or will be] smart and entertaining. So, with proper sequence of tenses, make it was or would be.

He’s right, but this is a tricky one. We don’t use the subjunctive mood[1] very often, so we’re not well versed in its use. Except for some common phrases, such as, So be it, and If I were king, the subjunctive has all but died out in speech and informal writing, and it’s uncommon even in formal writing nowadays. Spanish still uses it extensively (the rules for its use there aren’t the same as in English, though some are similar), but English, not so much.

And to top it all off, even when it is used we usually don’t notice: with notable exception of to be, most verbs use the same form for subjunctive and indicative in all but the third person singular. We may be using subjunctives, but we can’t tell.

A simple rule that many people remember is to use subjunctive with something that’s contrary to fact (as in the if I were king situation), but that only goes so far. In fact, it’s generally used not just for such conditionals, but also for demands, wishes, and desires. And that’s what makes it tricky with ensure.

A writer would correctly use subjunctive were he to say, Ms King said she would insist that the program be smart and entertaining. Be (subjunctive), not is (indicative), because of the demand. Ensure seems similar here: she insists that it be entertaining, so she will ensure that it be so. But no: she will ensure that it is so, or that it will be so. Assurance is not one of the situations where we use subjunctive mood. Why? Well, it just isn’t. Someone made these rules up a long time ago, and that’s that.

On the other hand, that should give us a clue as to why the rule is vanishing, n’est-ce pas?

[1] Yes, mood. Subjunctive is a mood, not a tense, nor a case, nor an aspect. The other grammatical moods in English are indicative and imperative.

1 comment:

Brent said...

Sorry...Im not in the mood...