Sing Me Subjunctive

Professionally trained linguists, please put your fingers in your ears and say “La-la-la-la-la” for the remainder of this post. Using terms that are no doubt clunky and antiquated, I want to point out a distinction in English that occasionally gives me a flush of pleasure.

Remember the subjunctive and the conditional? We throw these terms around. We bemoan the evaporation of the subjunctive, and we speak of conditional sentences in terms of counterfactuals. But when asked to describe the verbs “were” and “would have” in the sentence, “If I were an elephant, I’d have a long trunk,” most of us will say, “Subjunctive . . . conditional . . . whatever,” and quickly change the subject.

We’re missing the fun. “Were,” in this sentence, is in the subjunctive mood, past tense. In my universe (linguists, keep la-la-ing), there are four moods: indicative, imperative, interrogative, and subjunctive. To each of them I find a personal corollary. I’ve been in an indicative mood. On bad days, I’m in an imperative mood (ask my partner). Often, I feel fairly interrogatory—does the moon wax on the opposite side in Australia? But ooh, ooh, me oh my, to be in a subjunctive mood.  There’s something bluesy about it, something liminal, a brush of the surreal.

How do I know it’s a mood? For one thing, my old grammar book tells me so, though newer ones frequently miss the mark. For another, I can parse it. Let’s try future subjunctive. “If I were to be an elephant, I would have two trunks.” Or pluperfect subjunctive, “Had I been an elephant, I would have had a pink trunk.” Or even present subjunctive: “You desire that I be an elephant? Well, OK then!” When I am in a subjunctive mood, I like to parse possibilities this way, to engender all the lost, weird hypotheticals.

What, then, of “I’d have a trunk”? That’s conditional, of course. And the conditional is not a mood, but a tense. For most of us, tenses break down into the three ways in which we think of our lives: past, present and future. When I contemplate the conditional tense, I’m lifted away from this dull linearity and into a different relationship with time, one in which the moment of my having a trunk exists somehow, but conditionally—conditioned on my imaginative metamorphosis into a pachyderm.

But what about my pink-trunk sentence above? How can the conditional be a tense when you can say “I would have” and “I would have had”? Elementary, my dear Watson. Just as the past, present, and future have a sort of subtense, the perfect, attached to them, so does the conditional:

  • I have a trunk = present
  • I have had a trunk = present perfect
  • I would have a trunk = conditional
  • I would have had a trunk = conditional perfect!

It makes me peculiarly happy, the conditional perfect tense. It is . . . so . . . perfectly conditional.

The only wrinkle in my joy at the synergy of subjective and conditional is yet another overcompensation surfacing in published work. Not understanding subjunctive and conditional, eager copy editors have been correcting the indicative verbs in the first part of certain complex sentences beginning with “if” to the subjunctive—because if it begins with “if,” it must require that odd verb, right?

Wrong. Take the sentence, “If I was hungry, I would eat five of Grandma’s pancakes.” Here, the word “if” denotes, not circumstances that do not exist, but intermediate frequency, i.e. “whenever.” The “was” is indicative; the sentence is in the declarative mood, past tense. Changing the sentence (as happens too often) to “If I were hungry …” implies, not that I ate those pancakes on certain Sunday mornings, but that I suffer no hunger right now; the time at which I might eat those pancakes is conditional.

Has this discussion made you hungry? It has me. I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant. And that’s an indicative hyperbole.

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