A post on a language teacher Listserv referred us to a site dealing with Spanish grammar. There the subjunctive is treated. I got frustrated reading it.


The poster rightly say that most students do not recognize the subjunctive in English. To say most don’t use it misses an important point. The subjunctive is highly restricted in its appearance. It only is differentiated from the indicative in the 3rd person singular of the simple present of verbs other than ’to be’ and modals. Every year, when I taught, I would survey about 3 classes to see which form they preferred (itself a trigger of the subjunctive in both Eng and Sp), the indicative or subjunctive. About half preferred or accepted the subjunctive. (I found that Spanish-speaking students insisted (another trigger, depending – see CRS’s post on flteach Sept. 23) on the subjunctive if they came from Sp dominant backgrounds – otherwise they let it slide).

What most posters and teachers generally are thinking of when they say ’subjunctive’ is form, not function. It is the form of the subjunctive that is so restricted in English due to the fall of the final vowel -e. When the final -s of the 3rd person does not appear (in Middle English the subjunctive ended in -e and when it dropped off, it left the bare stem), it stands out, as in “I prefer that he find his own way” vs. “He always finds his own way.”

But the subjunctive also performs a function. CRS has referenced Bull and his use of non-existence as a trigger for the subjunctive. Translate a variety of Sp subjunctives and you will see the many ways in which English distinguishes subjunctive function from indicative functions e.g. you go vs I want you to go, I see that he is not going vs I prefer that he not go (non-subjunctive users would say ’I prefer that he doesn’t go’ i.e. the subjunctive completely does away with the auxillary verb ’do’).

So the issue is far more complex than ’kids these days’ just not ’knowing their grammar’. It would be better for us to get an understanding of the subjunctive both in English and Spanish (subjunctive alternative: it would be better that we get an understanding…. for the subjunctive to stand out, we’ll switch subjects thus: it would be better that the teacher get….) rather than making Sunday supplement pronouncements about the death of the subjunctive. You just MIGHT be wrong (subjunctive function via a modal)

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