Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Subjunctive, as it were


Colleen asked about the phrase, “as it were.” It means in a manner of speaking, and it often reveals a reservation in the speaker’s mind or a delicacy of expression. It has a companion in “so to speak.” What stands out is the verb form used; contrast these verbs, all of which are correct:

  • My niece nests here, as it were, every summer. [subjunctive mood]
  • As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. [indicative mood]
  • If I were a policeman, I’m sure I would feel stress. [subjunctive mood]
  • When I was a policeman, I felt stress. [indicative mood]

Verbs have a quality called mood. It doesn’t mean that they’re all emotional, ready to burst into tears at any second. Mood could very well be spelled mode. It designates the form of a verb chosen by a writer based on his or her intention: to express a fact, a command, a wish, a question, or a condition.

The indicative mood is the most frequent mood in English; it deals in objective fact. The indicative mood also includes questions.

  • I was young once.
  • Was she ever young?
  • This is erroneous.
  • Is this an error?
  • If I was rude to you last night, I apologize.
  • Was I rude to you last night?

The imperative mood issues commands.

  • Act your age.
  • Be certain of your facts.
  • Don’t be rude.

The subjunctive mood is used to talk about conditions that are contrary to fact or events that may not happen (hypotheticals), to promote a sense of urgency and thus exhort someone to action, or to express a wish.

  • Were I younger, I would beat you in tennis.
  • If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
  • It is necessary that this issue be settled now.
  • If I were a rude person, your anger would be understandable.

The subjunctive mood is not used very often in modern English, and when it has the pronoun you as the subject, it slides right on by, unnoticed. There is no special list of verbs that are found only in the subjunctive mood. Rather, the same verbs can do double duty and more.

  • I want to be helpful. [indicative mood]
  • Could you be more clear? [indicative mood]
  • Be a man! [imperative mood]
  • Be that as it may. [subjunctive mood]

Many subjunctive verbs are encased in clichés, like flies in amber:

  • , as it were
  • Be that as it may.
  • Far be it from me to complain.
  • If this be treason, make the most of it.
  • If I were you,
  • We demand that he be impeached.
  • I move that the motion be tabled.
  • Suppose that she were here.
  • So be it.
  • I insist that cursing not be allowed.
  • Were an epidemic to break out, we’d all die.

Sometimes we use should, could, or would instead of the stand-alone subjunctive:

  • I wish that he were here.
  • I wish that he could be here.
  • Had she listened to me . . . .
  • If she would have listened to me . . . .
  • Be you ready or not, the bus leaves at 6:00.
  • You should be ready to board the bus at 6:00.

Finally, the verb in the subjunctive mood will always be found in a dependent clause. Most of the time, the subordinating conjunction that introduces the dependent clause will be overt (If an epidemic were to break out, we’d all die), but sometimes it is merely understood (Were an epidemic to break out, we’d all die).


SIDEBAR: If I Were a Rich Man


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