A Glossary of Grammatical Terms
The KISS Perspective on the
Sooner or later in the study of grammar, students, parents, and teachers will have to address the problem of the subjunctive mood. The term "mood" refers to the attitude of the speaker or writer toward the content of sentences. Grammarians usually distinguish three moods: 1) indicative (statements of fact); 2) imperative (commands); and 3) subjunctive (matters of unreality). These moods are communicated in the form of the verb:
1) indicative -- Bill is good.
Perhaps the first thing we need to note within
the context of KISS Grammar is that the terms "indicative" and "imperative"
are not essential. Grammarians and linguists will scream about this, but
the fact is that all preschoolers are perfectly competent at handling sentences
in indicative and imperative moods. Since the
research on the teaching of grammar shows that the real problem is the
massive amount of terminology that is usually taught, an insistence
on teaching these two terms seems to be illogical. This should be even
more apparent when we note that currently, most high school graduates cannot
identify verbs in the first place. In that context, what can "indicative"
and "imperative" mean to them?
This form -- were -- occurs mainly in contrary-to-fact conditions. It has been losing ground for centuries in this usage, but there are still a few constructions in which it is nearly universal in all levels except Vulgate. Notable are the clauses "if I were you" and "I wish I were you." Was in these clauses would be strong indication of the speaker's lack of education. (Understanding Grammar, 165.)As parents and teachers, the worst thing we can do is to make "corrections" that lower the quality of our students' writing. Thus we need to be able to recognize the subjunctive so as not to mistake it with an error in subject / verb agreement.
Roberts notes that "were" is the only recognizable form in the past subjunctive, but there is also a present subjunctive:
In Choice Written and Spoken English and to some extent in General Written, the present subjunctive persists in noun clauses after verbs of asking, ordering, urging, insisting, etc., and also after adjectives of similar meaning:According to Roberts, "the present subjunctive is sometimes used in preference to the more normal indicative in doubtful conditions." His examples include "If night fall before we get out of the swamp, we are lost." And it "occurs very rarely in concessive (though) clauses when the concession is thought of as impossible of fulfillment: Though he make a million dollars, what does he gain?"
Whereas the preceding examples all appear in subordinate clauses, there are a number of idiomatic phrases in which the subjunctive continues to be used. Roberts gives the examples -- "Heaven preserve us." "Heaven forbid." "God help us." "God be praised." "God be with you." "Long live General Wiltshire!" and "Suffice it to say . . . ." (164-5)
The preceding is a simplified version of a complicated question. As usual, Paul Roberts' Understanding Grammar is my favorite grammar textbook because, unlike most textbooks, it acknowledges the complexities:
Nowhere in the study of grammar is it more important to distinguish notional and formal categories than in the matter of mood, and nowhere is it more difficult. (160)Roberts goes on to explore those difficulties, but most of them are of interest primarily to grammarians and linguists. As some of the sources noted below indicate, there is a fair amount of disagreement about the subjunctive, but for practical purposes, students, parents, and teachers should be aware of when the subjunctive is used (discussed above) and the forms it takes:
and linguists rarely address the most important questions: How do students
learn the subjunctive? And how much trouble does it give them? Based
on more than a quarter of a century teaching writing to college Freshmen,
I would say that most students handle it very well, and I am almost positive
that they did not learn to do so by studying explanations such as those
given in textbooks. They probably learned it in the same way that
they learn all the other idiomatic aspects
For additional information on subjunctive mood, try these links:
The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. (at Bartleby.com)
"When you wish upon a star, you're wishin' 'I were' not 'was'" from Professor Malcolm Gibson's Wonderful World of Editing.
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