If I were running the Queen’s English Society, I would shut it down


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.



14 thoughts on “If I were running the Queen’s English Society, I would shut it down

  1. As a 17 year old student AS english language student, it comes across as though the QES is just remainging blind to the fact that our language is changing, as it has done throughout history via generation to generation. Pauline, I must agree what you’ve said is perfectly sensible, and valid, but surely people at this QES aren’t going to take on board what people say now and how language has developed? they’re going to focus on what has been said in the past, as the past has more dignified and "proper" connotations with it where language is concerned.To a 17 year old, this stuff does slightly reach out over my head, but from a personal perspective I agree with how you explained it, "Even though it be dangerous, they went ahead." – doesn’t make sense to a modern society. the use of ‘be’ makes the sentence sound as though its coming from someone who is intellectually lacking, so why is QES wanting to take us back to this type of talk?

  2. Hi AlexThanks for this. It’s true the QES lot are not going to take any notice of me, but that does not matter. What matters is that no-one is going to take any notice of them. Huff and puff as they like, they cannot regulate the language the rest of us use. Hallelujah.And best of luck for your A-levels.

  3. Perhaps someone from the QES needs to have a wee word with Alicia Keys about that whole ‘If I was your woman …’ number … 😉

  4. Hey, I’m a native English speaker and I use and have used the subjunctive very often in speech and writing. I still say "if it be" or "if it should be" but I don’t know how consistently. In regard to the Although it be, I mean we still say albeit, which is a corruption of "although it be", but that is no my big thing. Yes, I use "if it were", too and would never say "if it was" unless I were talking about something true in the past, but I think the QES is trying to show that there is a more elegant side to the language. It’s more about not stultifying a language, as it were. It’s about intelligence and complexity. One need only remember Orwell’s "1984", wherein we see that the language, "Newspeak" is replacing our Modern English by "dumbing down" the grammar and vocabulary. Their raison d’etre behind this is very elementary: if they can simplify and control the language, they can simplify thought processes and control the people. As the QES would say, "if there be no thought, there can be no rabbles."It’s all fancy English, though. We all know that. The QES are not wrong; nor are the hoi polloi–the demos, as it were. LOL that was another subjunctive. Furthermore, if I remember, there has been a difference between "although it be" and "although it is" for centuries. "Although it be" is usually replaced with "although it might be" and talks about something this is possible, but not definite whereas "although it is" is a truth:"Although it might be wrong, we’ll move on." (unknown whether wrong) "Although it is wrong, we’ll move on." (known to be wrong)As for your sentence, "Even though it were dangerous, they went ahead." I don’t know how this is correct in modern English because the past subjunctive is used for present time contrary-to-fact statements. This is talkng about the past. Maybe one could use the present perfect subjunctive: "Even though it have been dangerous, they went ahead," but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone say it like this. It sounds a little stilted. One could insert a "might" or "may" between "it" and "have" so that it sound and be correct (a little subjunctive after "so that" there lol). Though, I shall admit that, in Old English, the past subjunctive was allowed to be used in other instances other than contrary-to-fact statements so that may be how you are using it in that statement.The subjunctive, though, is a good source of knowledge to have in English for two reasons: it’s easier to learn another language that uses the subjunctive more often if one know (subjunctive lol) it in English. Also, it’s good to use in formal college papers to impress one’s professors. I’ve used some of the ones talked about above in my last paper. Here are examples:1. In essence, Kant would probably consider Judah to be deontologically bad if he were assessing this character’s conscience.2. It is important that one remember that Cliff’s filming career has made him virtually insolvent. 3. His hands, though they be destitute, are completely clean in the end whereas Judah’s and Lester’s hands are literally and figuratively covered with blood.4. …he has made a conscious and personal choice that it is time that he end his life.5. Judah soliloquizes the murder as if it were an imaginary story when, in reality, he is telling Cliff a true story of his own perfect murder—a murder, which has left a stigma on his soul. 6. This is Judah’s subconscious effort to shrive himself of sin—to clear his conscience, as it were, from the dirty deed he has perpetrated. 7. …if one should pretend to be good in order to obtain some gain, that person is not morally good. ("should" replaces present subjunctive after "if")8. …whether one be just or unjust, life is truly existential. I don’t know whether this might help, but it shows that the subjunctive is still used, albeit, not consistently, but it’s still there. I wouldn’t shoot it down just yet if I were you. I try not to be too critical of people who fail to use a part of language correctly, but I don’t think we should impugn other people’s ways of speaking. It’s like complaining about "shall/will", "who/whom", "who’s/whose", "gerunds/participles", "me and him/he and I", "singular they" or "synesis", "can/may", and so on and so forth. Well cheers and take care, everyone. I guess I got my two cents in.

  5. Well, after looking through another one of my papers to see how often I use the subjunctive, I discovered more examples. Here are the examples:1. For instance, it is believed that he once had his guards "throw" random citizens to the lions because they had run out of prisoners and he was bored. ("throw" is subjunctive technically in "he had them throw" just as "help him be" and "let there be" are subjunctive, but lacking a subject)2. It is important that one "remember" that many of the ancient sources had much to gain by maligning Caligula such as saving face, keeping their reputations intact, and appeasing some of the public outcry. 3. Many of these ancient sources had long wished that Caligula "were" dead…4. He asserts that it was only fitting that Caligula "die" in the same manner as one of his forebears.5. This was rebuffed by a growing number of Roman citizens who were decrying the murder of their emperor and demanding that those responsible for his murder "be" brought to justice.6. Claudius later seized power of the Roman Empire after receiving the support from the Praetorian Guard and ordered that Chaerea "be" executed…Well, there aren’t a lot of examples that I’ve found, probably because it’s not common in English, but the fact remains it does exist. I still wouldn’t heed QES’s opinions as though they "were" "Logos or "had" some divinity about them. They just want to get their points across. I know a lot of people who get annoyed when people don’t differentiate between a subject and an object such as in "between you and I," which should be, "between you and me." My question to you is, "Who really cares whether one ‘say’ it one way or the other?" I mean, "Don’t we have bigger things to worry about? If we "continue" to harp on this, we shall be no different than the French. They grouse over the subjunctive in their language all of the time if I recall from my days of learning French: "Il faut que je sois le roi." (It is necessary that I be king.) Never replace the "je sois" (I be) with "je suis" (I am) or a Francophone will spit vitriol at you. I pray that we never "become" so inane as they are. In the end, I think the gist of the sentence above would be understood whether the subjunctive "were" used or the indicative.Okay, I had to complain again. I just say, seek and you shall find many strange examples of language. You may hear someone say "he shore the sheep", which is an old-fashioned past tense of "shear" or "he snuck out" instead of "sneaked" or "they digged a hole", which was used instead of "dug" up until about the 17th century. Again, why do we care? Maybe that’s a little nihilistic. Oh well. Live and let "live", right?Cheers and take care. Please respond. I shall be waiting with bated breath for an answer.

  6. Well, at least you’re waiting with bated rather than baited breath.I haven’t got time for much of a response just now. Suffice it to say (there goes another one!) that the original post seemed to me to be criticising the QES for inconsistency in its defence of the subjunctive, and noting that as a productive grammatical form it is very much on the wane.You make a good case for its retention in formal academic discourse, but I need to get students putting capital letters and full stops in the right place before I can start bothering them with the subjunctive, I’m afraid.I am very much against the archly prescriptivist stance of the QES, but as a teacher in an English secondary school I do think that our abandoning the teaching of formal grammar has turned out to be foolhardy.[Note to Alex:thanks for pointing me in the direction of Nick’s comments (he’s one of my students)]

  7. <HTML dir=ltr><HEAD> <META http-equiv=Content-Type content="text/html; charset=unicode"> <META content="MSHTML 6.00.2900.3698" name=GENERATOR></HEAD> <BODY> <DIV id=idOWAReplyText75924 dir=ltr> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT face="Times New Roman" color=#000000 size=4></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT face="Times New Roman" color=#000000 size=4></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV></DIV> <DIV id=idSignature76076 dir=ltr>For once I agree with you. You talk too much<BR></DIV></BODY></HTML>

  8. Of course I talk too much and my mouth has gotten me in a lot of trouble, but I guess it’s my personality. Sorry about my idiolect. I was defending the QES and all of you anathematize the QES so it wasn’t a very fair trial for me to put my case on. The Chaucer was the best I could do to prove it is a present subjunctive because the infinitive and the present subjunctive look alike in modern English, but looked different back then. My lemma there was that, if it was present subjunctive after "throw" in Chaucer’s day, than it must really be present subjunctive in modern English; thus explaining why the "to" part of the infinitive is missing. It’s hard to present an historical case to insular minds so I’ve just given up. There is no way to convince anyone that everyone is correct in his own way.Good day, gentleman, ladies.

  9. I’m afraid I am in agreement with Pauline on this one Nick, you definitely do talk too much! I’m following the conversation to some extent here, but I do feel strongly both outwitted and intellectually lacking to all three of you (as should be the case as I am still learning vast amounts about language itself). Nick is right in saying that the friction that exists between the two types of people will always be around, and that whilst yes, we should learn to "live and let die" these age old arguments but – really, aren’t they fun to be involved in? To have your say on something so debated over really shows you care about it. I know Anthony would have a lot more to say usually, but still the prospect of my 10 year old brother sitting and learning grammar when suggested to him, was given the response "What’s grammar?!". Kids at that age soak things up so, potentially, teaching them could not be a bad suggestion. But as mentioned, getting them to place capitals at the start of sentences, using comma’s correctly(unlike my very poor usage) and spelling things correctly would be a far more useful skill for them in later life, than being able to use the subjunctive correctly because as a society – we don’t care! We tend not to notice these little mistakes and don’t jump out to correct someone if they say something wrong as we just re-arrange it in your minds and come to the correct term as we know it. Enjoyed the discussion on this page, but I feel like this may get far more technical than my limited knowledge shall allow me to follow. Will try though!Thanks to all.

  10. Nick has posted here around 30 comments, some very long and rambling, others very short and angry. He doesn’t wait for replies, he just piles them up every few minutes.. All heat and very little in the way of illumination.I love a good discussion, but this is less a discussion than an impotent rant. So I have deleted them to spare us all. Freedom of expression? I will always vote for that. He can start his own blog and blast away as much as he likes.

  11. Nick, get a life. Your comments have deteriorated from general blather into the totally bizarre. This is a place for sensible, rational discussion, which is clearly something you’re not interested in, so have some grace and stop hijacking this website.

  12. Well, I’m not entirely sure (re. 15 June comment) that the QES is not taking any notice of you, since the link you provide to their errors discussion page is now dead — deleted out of shame? And though one hesitates to be snide … they do have a huge "Simon Ashton virus" warning on their page today, apparently a sign that their webmaster doesn’t have the brains to Google silly-looking warnings before broadcasting them.More to the point, I really appreciated this post, both for its linguistics (you helped me rationalise an apparent mistake I had made, post-fact) and its ethics. The point (as I read you) that the structure of a thought is not encoded in the overt linguistic features of the sentence expressing it should be tatooed in reverse on the foreheads of all language snobs. And therefore on mine.

  13. Have you seen their offspring, <a href=" http://www.academy-contemporary-english.org.uk/academy.html /"> The Academy of Contemporary English </a>?I have commented on my own blog <a href="http://realgrammar.posterous.com/lashing-the-wind "> here </a> and <a href="http://realgrammar.posterous.com/lashing-the-lashers"&gt; here </a> and on the <a href="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Real-Grammar/165204986850178?v=app_2373072738#!/topic.php?uid=165204986850178&topic=447"&gt; associated Facebook page </a>.

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