All The More Reason

On the Subjunctive
January 30, 2007, 9:54 pm
Filed under: Language, On..., Uncategorized

The recent post here on ATMR on sneezing got me thinking about one of my favourite subjects: the subjunctive. Without going into too much detail, for fear of displaying too much ignorance on my part, the subjunctive is a mood in grammar which describes a wish or desire. Here’s an example from a piece by Hitchens.

In spite of testimony from the Dutch police, who assured the court that the building was now one of the safest in all Holland, a court has upheld the demand from her neighbors and fellow citizens that she be evicted from her home.

The use of the word “be” denotes the use of the subjunctive. The neighbors demanded something, and as such there is an uncertainty attached. I would argue that most native english speakers, regardless of whether or not they’d ever officially heard of the subjunctive, would find the shift to the infinitive “is” very awkward sounding in Hitchens’ sentence quoted above.

Well, I could go on about the subjunctive all day, and indeed hope to in the future on this blog, as I believe it tells us a lot about ourselves and is just so inherently fascinating anyway. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, my reason for thinking about the subjunctive was due to the phrase “Bless you” mentioned in a previous post here on sneezing. Now God is in the third person and if it were the indicative used here one would say “God blesses you”. Saying this would imply that one is actually observing God in the process of blessing you. But, one is saying “Bless you” in the hopes that God will put your soul back where it belongs before it gets ideas of its own and finds a better carrier.

Deciding to no longer say “Bless you” is limiting the already very limited usage of this brilliant mood within the English language (other languages have this mood too, d’ailleurs). From my perspective, forgoing its use in the name of reason needs better justification. I say this, because a central aspect of human nature is the desire for things to be better. Desire can be expressed in many ways within the language and, as I stated at the beginning, even has its own mood. Removing one of the most consistent reminders of the subjunctive’s existence from the english language, by consciously no longer saying “Bless you”, carries its own costs too. Perhaps that could be put into the debate about whether or not the use of this expression has outlived its time. I ask that all sides be considered before too rash a decision is taken.

Jonathan Smith


2 Comments so far
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The English national anthem is, as far as I know, the only one to be written entirely in the subjunctive:

“God save our gracious queen,
Long live our noble queen,
God save the queen…”

At least, I assume it is the subjunctive, i.e. ‘May God save the queen…’. If not, it could be seen as an order to God, something even the British in the pomp of Empire didn’t feel they were qualified to do.

Comment by Michael P

That is seriously fascinating, and deals a near death blow to my thesis that the loss of “God bless you” would result in the weakening of the subjunctive. It’s the national anthem!

Comment by J.S.

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