The Secret Life of the English Subjunctive
Living in France has meant having to study French. Studying French has meant learning to use the subjunctive, a special type of conjugation that turns up when expressing doubt, sentiment, a personal judgement or a desire.
So “je comprends le subjonctif” is right (I hope), but “c’est important que je comprends le subjonctif” is wrong and should actually be “c’est important que je comprenne le subjonctif.”
With me so far? You’re doing better than I did, or most Anglophones do for that matter. The subjunctive is one of those things that we all struggle with, but which French people use all the time (unless they’re getting it wrong as well.) So far I reckon I have about a 50% success rate.
It is at this point in a class that the French teacher (and many Anglophone students) may nod sagely, and observe that the reason for the difficulty is that we English don’t use the subjunctive. Which is, as it happens, completely wrong: we use the subjunctive in English all the time. It just isn’t always clear that we’re doing it.
In English the subjunctive is used to indicate necessity, desire or purpose; it expresses urgency or counterfactuality. The problem in modern English usage is that, unless you’re using the third-person singular of the present tense, the spelling usually stays the same as the regular conjugation.
So if I say “it is important that you understand the subjunctive” you can’t actually tell that I’m using the subjunctive, but if I say “it is important that he understand the subjunctive” it becomes clear. Ok, clearer. A little bit clearer.
The subjunctive turns up after verbs like to advise, to desire, to insist, or phrases like it is best, it is urgent, or it is important (that he use the subjunctive). “It is a good idea that he use the subjunctive” is also right, although Word will helpfully tell you it is wrong.
The only verb I know of with a distinctive change is the past subjunctive of “to be”; English people don’t say “if I was understanding” we say “if I were understanding.” Except that you hear people saying “if I was rich” and “if I were rich” interchangeably. And, to take the very first example, someone could say “it is important that he understands the subjunctive” and no eyebrows would be raised.
This possibly goes to show that we aren’t any better with the subjunctive in English than we are in French. The French also get the subjunctive wrong from time to time, and I have witnessed the bizarre and not infrequent spectacle of French people arguing in cafés about correct conjugation. Yep, French people are weird. People get it wrong in both languages so often that there are phrases where the indicative and the subjunctive are starting to become legitimately interchangeable (although how legitimately depends on who you ask).
As the beneficiary of a solid English Comprehensive education, adult French classes were one of my first experiences of the formal study of grammar – it may show in my writing. I hope not, but that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog. And I’m still not fully confident with the subjunctive in English or in French. If they are becoming interchangeable, and most people can’t tell the difference, why is knowing that the subjunctive is hidden away in your English useful for a writer?
Well, first of all, it’s pretty good for showing off (when you get it right), and besides knowing whether what you are writing is correct or not is probably a good thing for a writer. Use of (or failure to use) the subjunctive can indicate levels of or pretentions towards education, which may make for good characterisation. But best of all, given that in modern dialogue we often have the choice, it opens up marvellous opportunities for subtlety; consider the delicious but delicate difference between “if I was wrong…” and “if I were wrong….”