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The subjunctive in English

The fact that English still has the subjunctive mood seem to be largely forgotten now but it still matters. Consider the following sentence, heard today on the BBC, which is currently broadcasting readings from Selina Hasting's biography of Somerset Maugham.
Maugham received a phone call from a family friend, asking if he were interested in some temporary war work.
What is wrong with this sentence? "Were" is the subjunctive, but it shouldn't be in this case. The sentence requires "was", not "were". That is because Maugham might or might not have been interested; there is an element of uncertainty. We, the readers or listeners, must wait until the next sentence to learn if he went. (He did.)

The subjunctive implies a negative. Something might have been the case but it wasn't. So Maugham could have said "I'd go if I were free, but I'm not." In that sentence we do need the subjunctive; it would be ungrammatical to say: "I'd go if I was free ...", and someone of Maugham's class, education, and sensibility would never utter such a solecism.

Schoolchildren are (or were) told not to say things like "if I was you". True, that is ungrammatical, but then they get the impression that "if" must always be followed by "were". That's a pity. The sentence "I don't know if he went for a bike ride but he wouldn't have done if it was raining" is correct, because no negative is implied; the mood is of uncertainty. I don't know if it was raining or not. "Were" would be wrong here.

The difference between the two usages is clear in Spanish but is danger of getting lost in English.

Does it matter? I think it does, because it jars on the reader or listener - this one, anyway. And a subtle shade of meaning is lost.

OK, pedantic mode off. But I wanted to get that off my chest; it always annoys me when I come across it.


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Bruce on :

What about "would be"?

Anthony Campbell on :

What about it? You've lost me here.

Bruce on :

Apologies for being cryptic. I was just curious what the difference would be if the sentence read: "Maugham received a phone call from a family friend, asking if he (*would be*) interested in some temporary war work." Is this incorrect, or does it have a different meaning? Thanks.

Anthony Campbell on :

This seems to be correct and I think the meaning is the same. In this case the sentence essentially repeats the exact words of the speaker ("Would you be interested in going ...").

Bruce on :

Thanks for your comment, and also for your interesting blog and book reviews. As per another of your observations, I have also found that learning another language, especially one that is quite different in structure from your own (my wife is Turkish) is an extremely good way of finding out what you know (or don't!) about the grammar of your own language. But I have also learned that asking your spouse "What is the grammatical reason for this construction?" is not good for the relationship!

Nick on :

The subjuctive can be fun, but it's too restricted in English because, except for the verb "to be", all others are pretty syncretic (no conjugations). It's hard to have a subjunctive in a language that doesn't really inflect anymore. I wish it weren't so, but, alas, it is. If only there were a way to bring back inflections, but, unfortunately, no language has ever grammatically evolved--only devolved. Every language in human history has begun with a complex grammatical system and has slowly metamorphosed by losing some of these complex rules.

Anthony Campbell on :

Not actually quite true. Practically all English verbs still have a subjunctive: ""I would prefer that the weather be warm rather than cold." Admittedly, the usage is declining today and may well disappear in ten or twenty years.

I think it is true that languages often lose grammatical forms over time, but linguists are reluctant to categorise this as deterioration. Guy Deutscher has a good discussion of the matter; see my review of "The Unforlding of Language". He thinks this may be connected with the emergence of large social groups, and may be compensated by an increase in the use of complex subordinate clauses in recent centuries.

Nick on :

You got the gist of my statement, Anthony. Of course there is a subjunctive. I used quite a few past subjunctives (were) in my last post and I use the subjunctive, as do most people, on a daily basis. I'm just saying it's hard to see in Mondern English. I don't think it's dying. I think it's coming back actually. I think that, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was near death. Now, at the beginning of the 21st, it is used more than it has been in a long time.

Anthony Campbell on :

Going back to the original point of this post, the thing I wanted to highlight is that many users of English, even educated ones and even professional writers, use the subjunctive automatically in "if" clauses, whether it is needed or not. I'm currently encountering this in reading Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Thomas Hardy.

Something rather similar happens in a different context when people write or say things like "He sent the letter to John and I". This happens because they were taught at school that it is wrong to say "Me and John went to the park". You should say "John and I went ...". This produces a vague feeling that phrases of the form "X and me" are always wrong.

It's really a form of superstition. It doesn't occur to the speaker to think what would happen if there were only one person involved - would they say "He sent the letter to I"?

To start up a completely unrelated hare, prohibition of the split infinitive is another type of superstition. It's one I admit to sharing; I know there is nothing wrong with splitting, but I avoid it because it's been inculcated in me that I should and because I'm afraid that, if I do split, readers will think I'm doing so out of ignorance.

Nick on :

I split the infinitive all of the time. I don't care about that rule. I know "X and me" is correct, too. Oh well.

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