Subjunctives and fuzzy logic: the Queen’s English Society revisited


Dear Nick

Thank you for your long comments on my piece of June 15th this year, If I were running the Queen’s English Society, I would shut it down, in which you repeatedly laugh out loud at all the subjunctives you are slipping in which show me how wrong I am to have claimed they are dead in modern English.

 I am puzzled, though. If you read my post more carefully, you will see that nowhere do I say that English subjunctives have disappeared. That would be a daft thing to claim because of course they exist. I even used one in my title.  (Not all your examples are actually subjunctives, however. The ‘throw’ in “It is believed that he once had his guards “throw” random citizens to the lions ” is an infinitive.)

This is not your only confusion, and as you are most eager for me to respond to you, I’ll reply blow by blow:

(Your words in red)

The QES just want to get their points across

Yes, but they are such nasty points. On the pretext of ‘preserving the language’ they like to tell us off for not using subjunctives which  have long disappeared from English.

My question to you is, “Who really cares whether one ‘say’ it one way or the other?”

My answer to you is, obviously, the QES care. A lot. They care so much that they are prepared to spend a lot of time ridiculing people who don’t say things way they insist is right. As for me, I don’t have to care how people say things because, a few slips aside, everyone speaks their native language correctly. There is no need for me to police the language and guard it from decay.

(By the way, about your question ‘who really cares whether one say it one way or the other?’ Are you sure about that ‘say’ subjunctive? Really? I mean, really?)


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.

Why are you addressing this to me? I am not insisting on antique uses of the subjunctive. It’s the QES who are doing this.

The French, by the way, have a point. Their many subjunctives are pretty much run of the mill, and they have every right to wince when a non-native speaker gets them wrong.

Oh well. Live and let “live”, right?

No, wrong. I am not arguing for ‘anything goes’. Language is suffused with grammatical rules and always will be. I am arguing for the status quo in English and not an imagined status quo ante which the QES is trying to impose on us.

I ……..would never say “if it was” unless I were talking about something true in the past,

If you were talking about something true in the past you would not be starting your sentence with ‘if’.

but I think the QES is trying to show that there is a more elegant side to the language.

I see. So you can only be ‘elegant’ if you follow their prescriptions?

 It’s more about not stultifying a language, as it were. It’s about intelligence and complexity.

Can a person be intelligent or complex only in a dialect narrowly prescribed by people with strong opinions and no facts? Does intelligence and complexity  involve using antique verbal forms? Let’s use subjunctives where they are normal and avoid them where they are anachronisms. That sounds like a good way to be intelligent and complex.

“Newspeak” is replacing our Modern English by “dumbing down” the grammar and vocabulary.

Assertions are worthless without evidence. I see no evidence for Orwell’s 1984 nightmare coming true in 2010.

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.

Who are ‘they’? Are they still in Orwell’s novel, or do you think they are in the here and now?

Plus,  you name me one group of humans, just one, whose language has been controlled and whose thoughts have been simplified. This is science fiction, not the real world.

As the QES would say, “if there be no thought, there can be no rabbles.”

And well they might say such a thing, but who would understand them?

 The QES are not wrong; nor are the hoi polloi–the demos, as it were.

 ‘Hoi polloi’  is Greek for the many. Therefore, ‘the hoi polloi’ means the the many.

 That’s what the QES lot would enjoy telling you and anyone else who betrayed their lack of an education in the classics. Happy about that?

Furthermore, if I remember, there has been a difference between “although it be” and “although it is” for centuries.

The real question is, does such a difference exist now? If not, you should stop insisting on it.

As for your sentence, “Even though it were dangerous, they went ahead.” I don’t know how this is correct in modern English

I was being sarcastic. I was trying to show that it was not correct, even though the QES argument would suggest it is.

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.

It does not sound stilted, it sounds completely ridiculous.

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.

No. I would never write a modern English sentence using a dead rule from Old English. That would be silly.

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 agree that language transfer can be useful when learning a foreign language, but this is no reason to force dead subjunctives on living people.  

As for impressing your professors with your idea of an academic English style, it might work, or they might think some of these examples a little bit pompous.

3. His hands, though they be destitute, are completely clean in the end.

4. …he has made a conscious and personal choice that it is time that he end his life.

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.

Yes, as I have pointed out above, I do know this and I have not argued against it. Read my post again and it should be clear.


3 thoughts on “Subjunctives and fuzzy logic: the Queen’s English Society revisited

  1. I think it goes a bit far to say that ‘no one will understand you’ with the use of the sunjunctive. And you’ve strayed towards prescription. This is just my meditation on it.
    I, for one, am not a regular user of it, but I still assert the mood has a place so long as the language is intelligible (if Scots be a mere dialect of English, surely a reader could digest the subjunctive). This would, of course, exclude and thus be incomparable to, let’s say, nominal declension.
    I tend to think that all things about this come down to stylistic choice. I do use the subjunctive, but often not, except for conveying a sense of formality, as here, and even to make certain constructions less ‘wordy’ (‘that he go’ vs ‘so that he might go). I might even use ‘thou’ and ‘ye’, if I want to write something which is morphologically ‘truer’ to English’s Germanic ancestry or demonstrate a certain historical connection or mastery of the labguage, because the pronouns lend a tone of antiquity to the work. Other times ‘ya’ ‘y’all’, ‘yer’, and ‘y’all’s’ (I live in the Southwest USA) suffice, giving a touch of self-deprecating humor on the culture where I live. However, when talking to Everyman, I revert to the modern American English dialect with my flat accent (although I do, by choice, pronounce ‘wh’ as ‘hw’).
    Again, these are all stylistic choices, using my own registers of the language, (playing around c’est-à-dire), resurrecting old forms and words, or incorporating the best of colloquialisms, for my purpose. All of it can be a fun exercise, whilst yet allowing the writer to gain perhaps a deeper understanding of English’s roots (tee hee). I even will practice my Latin or Lithuanian aloud, talking to people (although peeved ones) or animals, even though I sound silly, not because it is practical, but because it is fun.
    I think that the direction you take this whole matter is little too close to prescription, and away from description. You assert that the QES are attempting to prescribe fossils, but in turn you have underestimated the reader’s and audience’s ability to understand, and so prescribe a modernized register.

    • You use ‘thou’ and ‘ye’, and you talk to people and animals in Latin when the mood takes you? You are probably the only person who does. Modern linguistics does not denigrate idiosyncrasies such as these, but it pays little attention to them because its job is description of communities of use. And modern communities of use do not employ English subjunctives in the way you might do, or the way the Queen’s English Society would like.
      I most certainly am NOT prescribing a modernised register. You can talk how you like; this does not affect a description of the way modern standard English is based on the massive evidence of millions of speakers who are not trying to lend a tone of antiquity to their language but just getting on with their lives.

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