Stories + Views
Read your Fowler’s, Mr Gove!
The proposed Programmes of Study (PoS) demands that primary pupils learn the correct use of the subjunctive. Fowler’s Modern English Usage* has a section on the subjunctive – it runs to almost four pages. However, the length of the entry does not indicate importance. Fowler lists four general facts:
1 Subjunctive use is declining;
2 It would be impossible to devise a satisfactory list of subjunctive uses in English because of “the capricious influence of the much analysed classical moods upon the less studied native.”
3 It would not be worthwhile devising such a list as subjunctive use is waning.
4 Although there remain a small number of “truly living uses”, any contemporary use of the subjunctive is:
(a) A deliberate revival;
(b) For archaic effect;
(c) An obsolete survival used pretentiously;
(d) A new arrival “possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial”.
There’s insufficient evidence to conclude that Mr Gove is unduly influenced by an over-examination of the subjunctive mood in classical languages. Neither can I say hand-on-heart that he is deliberately trying to revive its use thereby encouraging (inadvertently perhaps) a more pretentious, less natural expression. But if the bible of English language usage, first published in 1926, says that subjunctive use in English is moribund then there is no sensible reason why 10 year-olds in the 21st century should learn it. Today we are more likely to use verbs like “would” and “should” instead of the subjunctive and any vestiges of its use can be picked up naturally in such expressions as “So be it”, “Be that as it may…” or “If I were…”.
There are examples in the PoS with explanations:
“The school requires that all pupils be honest. (It’s possible for pupils not to be honest, but the school would like them to be.)” This ponderous phraseology could be replaced by something more direct such as “We expect honesty,” if the school felt the need to point this out.
“Father demanded that we not go to the forest.” Does anyone really speak like this?
“I wish you would stop! (not “will stop”)”. It’s more natural to use “would” instead of “will” here. Or “I wish you’d stop!” (with the correct use of the apostrophe – I’m with the PoS on this).
“If she were the President, things would be much better. (But she isn’t the President.)” The “if… were…” construction is what Fowler would describe as a “truly living use”. I’ve used it in this post. It even appears in songs, “If I were a rich man…”, and “If you were the only girl in the world…” However, would it damage the sense if “was” were substituted for “were”?
The requirement to include subjunctive use is perhaps inspired by the need for the curriculum to appear more “demanding” than previously. However, the compilers show ignorance of modern English usage in doing so.
*Second Edition, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, Oxford University Press, first published in paperback 1983