Saturday, December 19, 2009

The long fight against the misuse of the subjunctive

In my experience as an editor, the misuse of the subjunctive—perhaps on a par with subject-verb disagreements—is one of the most common English grammar mistakes. Indeed, the sheer frequency of subjunctive misuse gives me the impression that the subjunctive isn’t taught at all in school, and if it is, those teaching it may not be teaching it well enough or perhaps few of those they teach get to understand it properly. I say this because many of the English-language manuscripts I have copyedited over the years, whether written by college students, company personnel, or professional newspaper or magazine writers, would flub their subjunctive sentences with disturbing regularity.

Looking back, I’d say that a full 70 percent of the writers I edited would write a subjunctive sentence incorrectly like this: “If by chance Ms. Tessie gets to read this “sumbong,”* may I also suggest that she develops a team who can reach out to people who encounter problems or difficulties with their various business units.” The correct subjunctive construction of that sentence is, of course, “If by chance Ms. Tessie gets to read this “sumbong,” may I also suggest that she develop a team who can reach out to people who encounter problems or difficulties with their various business units”—with the “s” in “develops” dropped in the correct version. At one time, in fact, I wrote in my column about a former editor in chief of a major broadsheet who consistently misused the subjunctive in his regular column, and, as far as I know, he still uses it wrongly to this day.

The subjunctive usage in print journalism left so much to be desired that in 2005, I even ran a four-part series on the subject in my weekly column in The Manila Times (those five columns now form part of my third book, Give Your English the Winning Edge). But it looks like that series was to no avail as far as one or two of the major Metro Manila broadsheets are concerned, as can be seen in My Media English Watch this week where I dissect still another subjunctive misuse, this time by another newspaper columnist.

Anyway, to make sure that all Forum members don’t make the same recurrent mistake in their subjunctive usage, I am posting in the Forum my lead essay for that four-part series on the English subjunctive. To those who won’t find this essay enough instruction on subjunctive usage, though, I suggest that they get a copy of Give Your English the Winning Edge for a much more detailed discussion.


*Sumbong – Tagalog term for “complaint.”

The proper use of the English subjunctive

The wrong use of the English subjunctive—the mood of the language that allows us to speak of acts or states not as they really are but as possibilities or as outcomes of our wishes, desires, or doubts—recurs very often in Philippine journalism but hardly anybody makes a case against it. I have actually come across several instances of such misuse during the three years that I have been writing this column, but I let all of them pass without comment on the presumption that they were simply typographical or misreading errors. A few days ago, however, I came across a sentence in a newspaper column that left no doubt that it was unknowingly misusing the subjunctive. The construction used two verbs in a row in the incorrect subjunctive form, so I was sure that typographical error was not the culprit this time. The sentence, quoted verbatim here except for the subject (I used a fictitious name to avoid giving any political color to this grammar discussion), runs as follows: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimizes his public appearances or goes on self-exile.”

At first blush, of course, there seems to be nothing wrong with that sentence. After all, “Mr. Romano” is in the third-person singular, so it stands to reason that the verbs expressing his actions, “minimizes” and “goes,” should also be in the third person singular. This happens not to be the case, however. By some quirk in English usage, verbs in the singular third-person subjunctive ignore the subject-verb agreement rule. They drop the “-s” or “-es” at their tail ends and take the base form of the verb (the verb’s infinitive form without the “to”), so the verbs “minimizes” and “goes” become “minimize” and “go” instead. Thus, strange as it may seem, the correct construction of our subjunctive sentence specimen above is this: “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimize his public appearances or go on self-exile.” (Unfortunately, when there’s only one operative verb in a subjunctive “that”-clause, copyeditors and proofreaders who don’t fully understand the subjunctive simply restore the missing “-s” or “-es,” so the wrong usage often gets into print looking simply like a typographical error.

The corrected sentence construction above is the so-called “necessity or parliamentary motion” or “jussive” form of the subjunctive. (In linguistics, “jussive” means an expression of command.) These two highly formal terms sound intimidating, but they neatly capture the insistent attitude of the speaker in this form of the subjunctive, which occur in subordinate “that”-clauses that state an implied command or indirectly express a wish, desire, intention, or necessity. We will discuss the particulars of subjunctive usage in much greater detail later on, but first, we need to clearly understand the behavior of the third-person form of operative verbs in subjunctive “that”-clauses.

Contrary to how verbs generally behave, verbs in present-tense subjunctive “that”-clauses don’t change form at all. In our subjunctive sentence specimen, for instance, the base verb forms “minimize” and “go” remain unchanged regardless of what number or person the subject takes. Look at the form those verbs take in the first person (“I,” “we”): “It is not enough that I minimize my public appearances or go on self-exile.” “It is not enough that we minimize our public appearances or go on self-exile.” In the second person (both the singular and plural “you”): “It is not enough that you minimize your public appearances or go on self-exile.” However, in the third-person singular (“he,” “she,” or actual name), we would expect these verbs to obey the subject-verb agreement rule: add “-s” or “-es” to their tail ends to become “minimizes” and “goes.” But the third-person subjunctive ignores that rule, too, using instead the verb’s base form like what the first person and second person forms do. This results in the following constructions as the correct subjunctive usage for the third person singular in the present tense: “It is not enough that he [she] minimize his [her] public appearances or go on self-exile.” “It is not enough that Mr. Romano minimize his public appearances or go on self-exile.”

Admittedly, this prescription for the subjunctive strongly goes against the grain of what most of us have learned about English usage. This is why many people remain doubtful and suspicious of the subjunctive and will actually go at great lengths to avoid using it. No matter how we feel about it, however, the subjunctive is a very important form of the English language, so we need to clearly understand its unique function and usage if we want to make ourselves truly proficient in our English. (July 11, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 11, 2005, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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