Prompted by a couple of comments/questions on a previous post (thank you), I have been to the Queen’s English Society website to look at their save-the-subjunctive campaign.
They explain here that the indicative form of the verb is for stating ‘facts’, while the subjunctive is for stating things which are suppositions or wishes or commands. I’m not sure about the ‘fact’ criterion. I can use the indicative perfectively legally for ‘King Canute lives in a retirement home in Norfolk’ and fool no-one. Still, to express this as a wish, I do need the subjunctive: ‘Would that King Canute lived in a retirement home in Norfolk!’
Anyway, the QES pursues this distinction between expressing fact and non-fact in order to point out that most people are wrongly using the indicative instead of the subjunctive to express things which are not facts. People say things like:
Although it is impossible, I shall try to do it.
Even though it is dangerous, they went ahead.
Though he comes every day, I never see him.
when they should instead be saying:
Although it be impossible, I shall try to do it.
Even though it be dangerous, they went ahead.
Though he come every day, I never see him.
So, apparently, to be ‘absolutely’ correct, we should be coming out with sentences that have not been produced by the mouth or the pen of anyone for centuries. Weird.
While I’m here, let me pick another nit. (After all, the QES should not get away with the language sloppiness they deplore in others.) Let’s look at the not ‘absolutely correct’ example, Even though it is dangerous, they went ahead. This could presumably describe a situation which is IN FACT dangerous, like running across the M4 blindfolded. So nothing wrong with using the indicative there. But if you want to describe a situation which you suppose could be dangerous, like swimming across a river that may or may not have crocodiles in it, you would still not say, Even though it be dangerous, they went ahead because this is to mix up the past and present. If you want to express the idea that swimming was maybe a dangerous choice, the subjunctive form you need is, Even though it might have been dangerous, they went ahead. Oh, sorry, I forgot we were using ‘absolutely correct’ English from centuries ago; make that Even though it were dangerous, they went ahead.
Now, the QES concedes that in the vast majority of cases, the forms of the indicative and subjunctive in English are identical, and they produce a handy table to show you this. Most people make no distinction because there is no distinction to make. But then they continue, rather darkly:
“So why bother? Well, there is good reason why you should recognise the difference. To find out more select the Next Page button.”
I selected the button so that you don’t have to, though you can if you don’t believe me. Here on this page they warn you very sternly:
And now we come to the main reason for this article on the subjunctive—the difference between “I was” and “I were”. .
So the QES is going after only one indicative/subjunctive bugbear. All their other examples of subjunctive rectitude, such as saying, Though he come every day, I never see him are for people who seek to be ‘absolutely’ correct. For the rest of the general population, the QES is saying, Go ahead, use the indicative if you must. But the use of was instead of were…..
“…is of the utmost importance and the correct use of this subjunctive is essential for anyone wishing to speak correct English.”
Now, I would agree that using was for were is considerably stigmatised in formal contexts and anyone wishing to be on their best Standard English behaviour should probably avoid it. That would be an honest argument. But the QES is not interested in honest arguments. They argue their point by returning to the distinction between expressing fact and expressing supposition. They use as an example:
‘The telephone operator who says, “Mr. Jones is out now. I would call back later if I was you.”
And they comment:
Nonsense, of course she was not you; it is “If I were you.”
After more pillorying of people confusing fact and supposition, (including the three recent contenders for the job of Prime Minister of the UK who all used if I was your PM in three weeks’ time instead of if I were your PM in three weeks’ time.) the QES finishes:
“So the lesson of this lengthy article is make the distinction between a past fact (I was) and a possible present or future situation (if I were).”
We can demolish that in a trice by making the pronoun plural and seeing how stupid the argument now is:
“So the lesson of this lengthy article is make the distinction between a past fact (they were) and a possible present or future situation (if they were).”
Obviously, in English, the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘supposition’ does not have to be encoded morphologically in the verb. The word ‘if’ does that job perfectly nicely in their example.
It is a mug’s game to argue for language correctness from the standpoint of logic. Language structures are not logical, and they don’t need to be. If English were logical, (yes, a subjunctive!) the plural of he would be hes and not they. Using logic to disparage people whose language you dislike is a nasty, snobbish and dishonest thing. No-one, no-one, ever thought that an operator who said I’d call back later if I was you somehow believed that she was you.
One parting observation. Over the centuries the forms which distinguished the subjunctive from the indicative in English have been gradually vanishing, and now there are very, very few left. Most of the subjunctives that remain are fossilised in fixed phrases:
If need be
If truth be told
Come what may
Perish the thought
Suffice it to say.
In formal English a distinction is usually made between indicative first and third person singular of the verb ‘to be’ (I/she/he was rich) and its subjunctive equivalent (I/she/he were rich) but even here examples such as if she was rich are frequently encountered. This may annoy some people who have invested loads of time getting the distinction right, but there is nothing ugly or confusing in it.
To return to King Canute, the QES cannot turn the tide swamping the subjunctive. Fortunately, they don’t need to, so please please will someone get them to stop making people feel bad.