Read your Fowler’s, Mr Gove!

Janet Downs's picture
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
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Tom Roper's picture
Sun, 17/06/2012 - 18:05

Many texts that children will encounter were written in the past, when the subjunctive was more common. It seems sensible to teach it today, even if its use is declining, so students can make sense of older texts. Otherwise children will be scratching their heads even over those popular uses you mention - "If I were a rich man....", for example.

I am not entirely convinced that Fowler was right about it declining anyway. Although years can go by without thinking of the subjunctive, as soon as it becomes an issue you start seeing it everywhere. Six instances in my Sunday paper so far.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/06/2012 - 10:33

I don't think any child would scratch its head over "If I were a rich man..." (or "If you were the only girl in the world...) - such use is often automatic and even if it were not then the sense would not be altered by substituting "was" for "were" (as in "even if it was not" or "even if it wasn't").

Older texts, like Shakespeare and Chaucer, present other challenges besides the subjunctive but we don't expect children to learn out-of-date usage such as "thee", "thou" or "ye", or teach them Middle English in case they encounter it.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language describes the subjunctive as "an archaic verb form". The BBC World Service Learning English says the subjunctive is used less and less. And ponderous expressions like "I recommend that he begin his revision as soon as possible" can be replaced by the more direct, "He should begin his revision as soon as possible" or even, "Tell him to start revising now," (which at least conveys a sense of urgency missing from the previous examples.)

Pascal Sansbouclier's picture
Sun, 17/06/2012 - 20:36

Most of us don’t often think about the subjunctive unless we’ve been vexed by it in some foreign language class. It’s something we use all the time. Sometimes we call it the state contrary to fact. I like to think of it as the “as if” language:

« Bien qu’il [Lacan] eût émis le vœu de finir ses jours en Italie, à Rome ou à Venise et qu’il eût souhaité des funérailles catholiques, il fut enterré sans cérémonie et dans l’intimité au cimetière de Guitrancourt ».

This sentence, written by Elisabeth Roudinesco about Jacques Lacan, is at the heart of a lawsuit by Lacan's daughter, Judith Miller, against Roudinesco, who is accused of slandering the late psychoanalyst. Roudinesco's lawyer, the inevitable Georges Kiejman, bases his defense on Grévisse's French grammar:

A l’adresse du tribunal dont il pressent qu’il hésitera à s’aventurer dans l’interprétation des dernières volontés lacaniennes, Me Kiejman propose une caution plus familière. Celle de Grévisse, selon lequel, assure-t-il, le plus que parfait du subjonctif – « bien qu’il eût souhaité" - peut avoir « une valeur indicative ou conditionnelle sans que rien ne permette de distinguer ces deux modes ». Et vient la péroraison : « Le doute, fût-il grammatical, doit bénéficier à l’accusé ! ».

In other words, did Roudinesco write, that Lacan "may have expressed the wish to die in Italy and have a Catholic funeral" or that he "did express the wish?" Grévisse says there's no way to tell. « Le doute, fût-il grammatical, doit bénéficier à l’accusé ! ». For this, Kiejman will no doubt go down in the annals of French legal and grammatical history.

Personally, I think the subjunctive has a lot to do with the political lives of minorities. Most of this isn’t so much my own though as the things I gleaned from reading “Virtuous Vice: The subjunctive and the Public Sphere.” While I can in no way presume that I really took in everything about the comparison of Kant, Habermas, and Foucault, I think there are some things that really have stuck with me.

Specifically those of us who do not fit the “mainstream” need to appear as if we do in order to attain rights. America is founded not so much on the principle of equality for all as it is for white-male-land-owners. Indeed, many of the revolutionary soldiers didn’t even want to fight and were forced to by the more wealthy in the colonies. Gradually, people without property were given the right to vote because they were seen “as if” they were like those who held property. Slaves were not even considered human, but once they were, it was “as if” they were like those who could vote before. Much of the women’s suffrage movement makes women appear “as if” they are like men, and therefore as capable as they are.

Thus liberals are mainly capitalist-oriented and feel that the competitive edge will spur on more success. but they fail to realize that such a game is ruthless and have no moral convictions. hence depraved sectors of society emerges and hence we need socialism to redistribute the wealth that is lopsided.

eg 2% of worlds population control the worlds wealth and more than 3/4s live in poverty

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 15:08

Wow Pascal! This comment has really set me thinking about the conditional nature of the subjunctive. I'm struggling with Lacan for my PhD research...

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/06/2012 - 07:51

The usual argument put forward in favour of teaching the subjunctive is that it would be useful for learning a foreign language where subjunctive use is more common. The opposite is true. In English, the subjunctive only requires changes to the first and third persons singular (eg "I was" to "I were", "he/she/it was" to "he/she/it were"). However, a language like Spanish requires changes to the first, second and third persons singular and plurals. Any pupil drilled in English subjunctive use who then applied the English rules to Spanish, say, would be making a mistake.

Grammatical rules in one language can't be followed in another language. Each language has its own rules.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 19/06/2012 - 10:26

No one is going to be "drilled" in the subjunctive, Janet. Just taught to understand what it is and broadly how and why it's used.

It's part of understanding the deep structure of language - and goes some way to helping establish the deep structure of thinking too.

Yes, it's useful for languages. But Tom's points about reading older texts and the fact that (presumably broadsheet) newspapers use it quite a lot still, hold good too. Why leave kids leave kids puzzled or floundering when you don't have to? Why leave state school kids feeling less sophisticated than private school kids? Why keep forgetting that the chances are that half of primary school classes will end up going to university?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/06/2012 - 12:34

Subjunctive use is archaic. And a knowledge of the subjunctive doesn't improve thinking - it's possible to think deeply without it. Reading an English broadsheet doesn't require knowledge of the subjunctive. Not knowing about the subjunctive doesn't "leave kids puzzled or floundering". And if the "sophistication" of private school pupils depends on a knowledge of the subjunctive then it is a shallow sophistication.

Apart from the "If ... were" construction (and even that could be discarded with no reduction in sense), the other uses of the subjunctive sound increasingly pretentious: "We advise that the customer refrain from requesting credit" is a ponderous way of saying "No customer should ask for credit" or the more direct "Don't ask for credit". The first expression actually obscures meaning.

In "Politics and the English Language" (1946), Orwell wrote about the need "to make pretentiousness unfashionable". It is not sophisticated to write sentences which require a convoluted construction. Neither is it a sign of erudition. It is quite possible to write clear sentences in English without using the subjunctive.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/06/2012 - 14:03

The Pedant has been in touch and pointed out that substituting "was" for "were" in the line “If you were the only girl in the world…” would result in the grammatical error, "If you was the only girl..." The Pedant suggests that I was thinking of the next line, "And I were the only boy!". "Were" could be replaced by "was" in this extract without changing the meaning or saying something ugly.

However, he has set a puzzle. He has read the following sentence in the narrative of a novel:

"On his asking me if I was satisfied with the ground, and on my replying Yes, he begged my leave to absent himself for a moment, and quickly returned with a bottle of water and a sponge dipped in vinegar."

Should the sentence say, "...if I were satisfied...", or is "was" correct? If anyone has an answer please contact the author, Mr Charles Dickens.

But Somerset Maugham should have the last word:

"The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery as soon as possible." (Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook, 1949)

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 11:46


Subjunctive use is archaic.

Not too archaic for the Beatles (Let it be...) or for the Pogues (If I should fall from Grace....)..... :-)

Many people (including children) use the subjunctive quite naturally all the time, often without realizing they are doing so. You have offered much crisper imperative or indicative uses for what we might call the Bureaucratic Subjunctive. Good. Orwell would have approved and I do too. But not all uses of the subjunctive are pretentious.

Take, for example, the subjunctive usage:

I wish I knew.

The indicative - I wish I know would sound daft and clumsy... and really wouldn't make sense.

The subjunctive:

I wish Mummy would come home tomorrow, not Friday is better than I wish Mummy will come home….

The subjunctive - I wish I could dance is better and more natural than I wish I can dance

And there’s certainly nothing pretentious or archaic about the frequent uses we all make of the pluperfect subjunctive –

Had I known you were ill yesterday, I’d have picked up your son from school

Sometimes, avoiding the subjunctive risks losing a shade of meaning:

If I climb the tree, I will fall and break my leg

is an almost brutally matter-of-fact conditional. The subjunctive version:

If I climbed the tree, I would fall and break my leg maintains a sense of possibility/ contingency etc. which is meant but not so evident in the conditional.

There’s also the issue of euphony. Honestly Janet, would you really say :

I wouldn’t do that if I was you?

Surely, if I were you is preferable? It’s certainly a very common current usage.

You say:

Not knowing about the subjunctive doesn’t “leave kids puzzled or floundering”

But if your grandchild came home with the poem Fare Well by Walter de la Mare, the final stanza of which runs:

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days

And asks you “why is it thou have paid ?” How will you answer without reference to the subjunctive?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 15:13

Research in the new Professional Journal of the National Association for the Teaching of English, Issue 23, June 2012, English Drama Media (only available through a subscription to NATE) shows that the teaching of grammar is fraught with difficulties and rarely succeeds if resources are not put into the right kind of training and fails when language is examined in a reductive fashion. (Myhill, Jones, Lines, Watson: 2012)

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 16:15

Thank you, Ricky, for pointing out that many people use what Fowler would describe as the "living use" of the subjunctive "quite naturally all the time, often without realizing they are doing so". Therefore it doesn't need to be taught using the type of ponderous examples given in the PoS especially not at primary school. Let the pupils enjoy their literature. Is Gove really suggesting they be given discrete lessons - dull, dull, dull?

You are also right that many songs use the subjunctive (I gave two examples although as Pedant pointed out I didn't complete one of them which rather shafted my argument). And there are hundreds of examples in poetry - you have quoted a particularly beautiful one, but I hope the child would be so moved by the language not to notice the "thou have" (s/he might equally ask about "thou", or just accept it as poetic). Subjunctives are also found in Shakespeare:

"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here," (Macbeth)

(WS also uses modal verbs here - but doesn't it deaden the effect to point it out. The man's discussing murder, for goodness sake.)

"If I climbed the tree, I would fall" is an example of the subjunctive being replaced by the modal verb "would" and the Pogues used "should". I've no problem with modal verbs.

"Let it be" - I always thought this was a sad, low-key imperative but then I thought "God Save the Queen" was a command to the Almighty to look after HM. Apparently, it's the subjunctive.

Would I say, "I wouldn't do that if I was you?" Probably, but then instantly regret it because they reply is likely to be, "Why? What you gonna do 'bout it?"

What about the Dickens' example given by Pedant. Correct or not?

And what about this hymn?

"The King of love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever."

Should that be "...if I be his"? And if it is, then doesn't it clunk on the ear?

But enough! "Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow."

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 14:45

In Massachusetts, one of Mr Gove's favourite US States (he's always citing Massachusetts) the subjunctive is not introduced until grade 8 (last year of junior high, age 13).

Seems to be a case of one-upmanship.

FJM's picture
Fri, 29/05/2015 - 12:52

If I were you, I would avoid the subjunctive.

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