Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I'm in a Mood; a Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood seems to be slipping from a lot of English speakers’ grasps and that’s a shame, as it is a subtle, mysterious and beautiful construction that is easily missed but warmly appreciated when delivered correctly. The English subjunctive exists to express intention, uncertainty, conjecture, or anything that’s not quite nailed down. That alone makes it cool.

Say you are throwing someone out of your house party. You might say, “I insist that you leave.” Whether you know it or not, you just used the subjunctive mood. That’s another reason why the subjunctive is cool. It’s not a tense; it’s a mood.

Where you will actually hear the subjunctive mood is in third person usage. Suppose the guy you want to throw out of the party is a thick neck drinking long necks who could easily break your neck. You think to yourself, “Hey, I’ll get this guy’s wife to take him home.” That’s when you stride bravely up to the poor woman and hit her with the subjunctive case. “I insist that he leave.”

The indicative mood of the verb to leave would be declined as “he leaves,” but because Bruiser Boozer hasn’t yet left and his departure at the time of the utterance remains a mere fantasy, the subjunctive case is appropriate.

The only word that has its own highly visible subjunctive form is the verb “to be,” whose third person mood is “be” instead of “is,” and “were” instead of “was.” The word "if" often invokes the subjunctive mood. Tim Hardin got it right with his song, “If I Were a Carpenter.” Eminem got it wrong with his song, “What If I Was White.”

I suspect that Mr. Mathers, an absolute expert in the English language, in fact didn’t get it wrong. I think that had he employed the subjunctive mood and said, “What If I Were White,” it would have sounded a little too, well, white, which in turn would have undermined the ironic comedy of the track.

Although it sounds a little bit yacht club sometimes, the subjunctive mood is one that I recommend you not ignore.