Changes in the use of the subjunctive

Here’s a grammar question for you. Which form of the verb be would you use in the first sentence below, and which form of the verb take in the second?

I wish that Kirsty … here to celebrate with us.

It’s essential that Sam … his phone with him.

Prescriptive grammars, which tell you how you should and shouldn’t use language, will say that you must use were in the first sentence and take in the second.

I wish that Kirsty were here to celebrate with us.

It’s essential that Sam take his phone with him.

oup_56043_croppedThe forms were and take in the second pair of sentences are often called subjunctive verb forms which indicate that a particular situation is unreal or not the case (Kirsty is not at the party; Sam hasn’t (yet) taken his phone with him), but is nevertheless wished-for. The second example above illustrates the use of the so-called mandative subjunctive to indicate the importance or necessity of something happening. Subjunctive verb forms will be familiar to you if you speak one or more of the romance languages, such as Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese.

But are were and take the only correct forms in the sentences above? More descriptively oriented grammar books will tell you that you can also use was and takes, or should take, at least in British English:

I wish that Kirsty was here to celebrate with us.

It’s essential that Sam takes his phone with him.

It’s essential that Sam should take his phone with him.

The first sentence uses the regular third person past tense form of the verb be, and the second uses the regular third person present tense form of take. In the third sentence we have an example of mandative should, which offers an alternative way of expressing necessity. These sentences would sound perfectly normal to many (especially younger) British speakers, but they would sound ungrammatical, or at least unusual, to many American ears.

Writing in the early part of the twentieth century, the Fowler brothers famously claimed in their book The King’s English that the mandative subjunctive should be avoided because it can be ‘dangerous’ (!) and is often ‘unpleasantly formal’. In any case, they argued, the subjunctive is unnecessary and about to disappear from the English language. It turned out that the Fowlers were wrong, and that not only did the subjunctive survive, it had a revival in British English during the second part of the twentieth century. For some, this caused anxiety, as this passage from Catherine Nesbitt from the early 1960s shows:

Today I would like to draw attention to something far more serious, the unexpected revival of the Subjunctive Mood, which seems to have begun in this country less than ten years ago and is now spreading so rapidly that, if left unchecked, it will do real damage to the structure of the language, a far more harmful thing than any craze for the latest fashionable word.

The revival of the subjunctive is quite surprising because to many modern ears it does sound rather quaint and formal. So what could be the reasons for it? Linguists have speculated that it may have happened under the influence of American English, in which the subjunctive was always more frequent. American English has been influencing British English ever since films, music and television programmes made their way across the ocean. However, some recent research suggests that the increased use of the subjunctive has now stalled. Who knows, in the longer term the Fowlers may still be proved right about the subjunctive disappearing from the English language.

This blog post first appeared on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary blog Spread the Word: http://bit.ly/2vTcxdq

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4 thoughts on “Changes in the use of the subjunctive

  1. Hi, Bas – Am I right in thinking that in your last paragraph, when you refer to ‘the revival of the subjunctive’ you mean the mandative subjunctive? For me, the use of ‘I wish I/she were’ and alternation with ‘was’ is something that hasn’t changed that much in my longish life, but the mandative still strikes me as a re-import from across the pond. I expect you’ve got lots of corpus evidence, haven’t you?

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  2. Yes, indeed, Jeremy. Thanks for pointing that out.

    As for the data, yes corpora were used. See especially my PhD student Tim Waller’s dissertation entitled ‘The subjunctive in Present-Day English: A critical analysis of recent research, leading to a new diachronic investigation of the mandative subjunctive’. You’ll be able to read it when it’s posted on the UCL Library catalogue website in due course (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/library).

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  3. Hi Bas. I may not understand this correctly, but I’m struggling to follow the logic. If the British English examples you give are used especially by younger British speakers and these examples would sound wrong to American ears, how is it that there is an American English influence? We seem to be moving away from American English in this case, rather than being influenced by it.

    On a wider point, as I work in both American and British English, it is very interesting and also professionally useful to understand these differences.

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    • Maybe I wasn’t being all that clear, but what I was trying to say was that there’s been a revival in the use of the subjunctive, such that the indicative forms are being replaced by subjunctive forms, but only to a limited extent. So not all speakers have started to use subjunctives. It’s just that we can detect a slight increase in the population as a whole, perhaps under the influence of US usage.

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