Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The subjunctive mood (1)

In our continuous efforts to produce clear writing, we need to pay special attention to the inflection of verbs – also known as verb formation and conjugation.

For most of us, the most difficult area of conjugation is mood – especially the subjunctive mood. The most common mistake we make is using the indicative mood when the meaning calls for the subjunctive mood.

For example, in a recent essay about sentiment against the free market, Robert Higgs writes: “Among other things, we must appreciate that the sky is not falling, even if the news media and the politicians talk and act as if it is.” (Emphasis in original.)

He asserts that a condition is true; that is, he asserts that it is true that the sky is not falling. Then he mentions people who appear to be assuming the opposite condition (that the sky is falling). In grammar, a condition contrary to fact should be expressed in the subjunctive mood; the use of the subjunctive mood tells the reader that the writer is saying that the condition is not true.

So, in the example, the writer should have written as if it were.

What is the effect of this error? When the well-educated reader* encounters “as if,” he expects soon to see the subjunctive form were. When instead he sees the indicative form is, he wonders what the writer means by it. After a few moments, he probably guesses that the writer doesn’t mean anything; he is just using the wrong verb form.

By making this mistake, the writer momentarily distracts and confuses the reader. And possibly he irritates the reader and even loses a little of the reader’s confidence.

In speech – especially informal speech – the rules are more relaxed. Most listeners (including the well-educated) now accept the use of the indicative mood in many constructions that in formal writing would call for the subjunctive mood.

The Takeaway: In writing, be careful to use the subjunctive mood where the meaning calls for it. Refresh your knowledge of the subjunctive forms and of the uses of the subjunctive mood; condition contrary to fact is only one of many. For a reference work, I recommend Writing and Thinking, by Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman, Jr.

*If you write exclusively for dudes, airheads, and other ill-educated readers, you needn’t spend much time or effort on these fine points, because your readers wouldn’t notice them even if their lives depended on it.

1 comment:

  1. I've found your post helpful and well-written.

    The funny thing is that I've found it looking for the correct usage of subjunctive after "to appreciate that", but in the sense "to be grateful that...", rather than "to realise that" in your example. Indeed, in that first sense, the French would use subjunctive, because... a doubt would remain on whether the sky is falling or not.