Is the English subjunctive dead?

Is the English subjunctive dead?IMG_20170826_154015812

I know some of you are looking at this and saying: “What th’eck are you talkin’ about? Never ‘eard of it. We was never taught anything about this at school”. And you are right, I never learned anything about the use of ‘moods’ in the English language, nor did I learn my tense endings, nor the position of adjectives in English……..and the list goes on.

When I came to learn foreign languages, however, some of these things came to light, but even then, many of them still remained a mystery. It was only when I qualified as a teacher, and had to teach Spanish to A Level and university entrance, that my knowledge and understanding finally matured.

Lidl obviously does think the English subjunctive is dead, and that is from a company that has its origins in Germany where the use of the subjunctive is very definitely alive and kicking. Abuse the German subjunctive and Angela Merkel will make sure you are personally ‘brexited’ head first from the EU.

Some of you are old enough to remember Fiddler on the Roof, and the famous song when Topol sings “If I were a rich man…….”. Now, would it have made any difference if he were (was) to have sung “If I was a rich man……”. If a lyricist were (was) writing those lyrics today, would he have used was or were? Do media giants like the BBC give tacit approval to linguistic pecadillos like these? And the big question is this: does common usage these days give its stamp of universal approval, and make them correct?


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on August 26, 2017, in Miscellany and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. It is not dead for me. Without it, your prose is flat.

  2. I don’t think it’s dead at all, it’s just difficult so it’s use is left to those with the care (and education) to keep it alive.

    • Ah, but it’s the language of the masses that survives through the generations, and not the confined usage by a few academics and people who care. And that’s precisely why British and American English have diverged so much in such a relatively short time.

      • I see your point, and to make it worse there’s a movement over on this side of the pond to do away with Shakespere in high school English. I didn’t look at the bigger picture.

  3. I teach it when it comes up (conditional sentences, necessity etc.) Unfortunately, TV and advertising do a lot to ruin some of what I teach. It is hard to compete when a student can pull up a YouTube clip that shows someone saying “if I was you.” Additionally, some English exams now accept the use of was along with were in the second conditional.

  4. If know one remembers who you are anymore does that make you dead? Answers in < 5000 words!

  5. I teach students how to use it, and how to ignore it. It’s a winning combination.

    • Er……winning combination? I need to know more……

      • For example: ‘If I was you / were you, […]’ or ‘I wish I was / were a boy again’. I’d teach them to use ‘were you’, BUT in such cases, does it really matter? The meaning is contextually clear either way – one can’t be someone /something else. That’s my view on it.

      • Interesting thoughts but………..
        Were it the case that any use of grammar and syntax is OK so long as meaning is contextually clear is, I think, a contentious point. But then, at what level of acceptability are we referring to?

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