Thursday, January 1, 2015


Fear not, Gentle Writer, Mrs. Grammar Person is here--and it seems that she has arrived just in time! The sight of you pulling your hair out and chewing your nails makes her sorry she didn't arrive sooner. But no need to fret, Mrs. G.P can see what the problem is and although she wishes there were a simple solution, alas, there is not. The truth is that the subjunctive tense is tricky and before she can begin to explain it, our favorite grammarian will need a strong pot of tea and some lovely biscuits. If you are in the neighborhood, you're welcome to join her for tea; she always buys extra biscuits, just in case.

Ah, much better! Now, Mrs. G.P. is ready to discuss the tense which makes everyone tense, the strange and wonderful, wonderfully strange subjunctive, the tense that allows us to engage in wishful thinking, to imagine things as they might have been, and to impose our will on others as if we were royalty, which, happily, we are not--and that's why we had to use the subjunctive.

We may not be royalty, Mrs. Grammar Person says, but we can still impose our will on others by insisting, demanding, commanding, urging, proposing, requesting, suggesting, asking, advising, recommending, and desiring that they take a particular action. Before you beg off with a migraine, please allow Mrs. G.P. to explain that the subjunctive tense often looks identical to the indicative tense--depending on whom you are bossing around. For example, "They walk to the park" is indicative. "I insist that they walk to the park" is subjunctive, but walk is still walk. So, why all the fuss? The fuss comes about when the speaker imposes his will on him or her (and sometimes them). Let's try it again see what happens. "He walks to the park" is indicative. "I demand that he walk to the park" is subjunctive. We see how the verb has changed, don't we?

Other ways we can impose our will on others (thereby requiring the use of the subjunctive) is with the following expressions:
It is important (that)
It is recommended (that)
It is urgent (that)
It is vital (that)
It is a good idea (that)
It is a bad idea (that)
It is best (that)
It is crucial (that)
It is desirable (that)
It is essential (that)
It is imperative (that)

Sometimes we are feeling more hopeful than willful, but even when we wish or hope for something to occur, we must still use the subjunctive. "I wish my brother weren't so stubborn" is wishful thinking because the speaker's brother is clearly stubborn and seems unlikely to change.

The most important thing to remember is that the subjunctive is used to describe conditions that are not true, as well as for commands, wishes, and requests. Most commonly, the subjunctive is used to describe a hypothetical situation, one that isn't likely to happen, such as, "If she were any tinier, she would be an ant." A factual statement would be: "When she was very tiny, she was just a baby."

Generally, a clause followed by "when" takes the indicative, and a clause followed by "if" takes the subjunctive.

Mrs. Grammar Person knows exactly what your next question will be--it's one of her many talents. You want to know how to use the subjunctive in the past tense. Well, it's quite simple. To use the past subjunctive you need only remember: had, as if and as though. The subjunctive is found after "as if" or "as though" and is used to indicate an unreal situation:

He was running as if he were being chased by aliens. (Let's hope not!)

She stared at me as if I were guilty. (I was framed!)

He talked about prison as though he had been there, himself. (Poseur!)

When we use the word "had" for the past subjunctive, the word "if" is understood, but not stated: Had he known about the rain, he wouldn't have gone to the concert. (We hope he enjoyed the concert, anyway.)

And now you've done it, you've learned the subjunctive! Mrs. Grammar Person congratulates you for mastering this difficult task so quickly. You are truly gifted grammarians, she says. As she sees the last of you out with a heartfelt good-bye, she sighs and murmurs to herself, "Oh, how I wish I were younger."

A familiar voice behind her answers, "My dear, I insist that you take that back."

Mrs. G.P. turns around and gives her friend a smile. "But, Mr. Syntax, it's true! Had I known then what I know now, just think what I could have accomplished!"

The gentleman takes both of her hands in his. "You are the incomparable Mrs. Grammar Person and I wouldn't change one thing about you. You are perfect just the way you are."

Our favorite grammarian squeezes his hand and blushes, but says nothing. Something remarkable has happened--for the first time in her life, Mrs. Grammar Person cannot think of anything to say. Her words have escaped her, taking wing together for one joyful moment in time.

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