Friday, July 31, 2015

A Subjective Look at the Subjunctive

Don't get me wrong, I love languages: learning them, talking about them, and hearing them. However, there is one thing I just can't stand and it's the subjunctive. It's my pet peeve, my bugbear, and the proverbial thorn in my side. I avoid it like the plague even though I shouldn't.

Like most language fanatics, I do my fair share when learning and practising a language. I try to expand my vocabulary, learn the conjugations and even idioms, and use it regularly. That said, when it comes to the subjunctive, which is used in my two dominant foreign languages (French and Spanish), I awkwardly rephrase my sentences in order to avoid it. I just hate it!

Why do I hate it? Because it's not very common in English, and in the UK we barely learn anything about the structure of our mother tongue. I think it's just assumed that because we can talk and make ourselves understood that we should move straight on to Shakespeare and war poetry. In fact, I only started to learn about the structure of languages from studying foreign languages.

Welcome to Subjunctive Land. Just kidding, this is Venezuela.
So what is the subjunctive? When I was learning French it was simply called a "tense". While tenses refer to time, such as past, present, and future, and awkward combinations of those (the future perfect, for example), the subjunctive exists outside of time, in a place teachers like to call subjunctive land. It is technically a grammatical mood or mode, depending on where you learnt about it.

While subjunctive land isn't a real place, the name does somewhat help you to understand what the subjunctive is all about: things that aren't real. When you're using language to refer to factual things that have happened using simpler tenses such as the past, present, and future, you are using what is known as a realis mood. This can easily be remembered because it has the word real in it. The subjunctive takes place in the land of dreams and wishes, which is why it is an irrealis mood.

The reason I find the subjunctive awkward and confusing is because it's not as obvious in English, my mother tongue. While it definitely exists, English can be quite wonderful in its flagrant disregard for its own rules. Most people I know wouldn't even correct me, let alone realise, if I hadn't correctly used the subjunctive. However, in the other languages I've learnt, people will notice if you don't use it correctly.

The subjunctive occurs when you express a desire or a wish. Other times you'll need it when you start a sentence and find yourself creating a separate clause that couldn't exist without the first part of your sentence. This is known as a dependent or subordinate clause.

Not the kind of car you'd get an automatic gearbox in.
In English most conjugations are identical, with the third person singular being the obvious exception. In the English subjunctive mood, that third person singular either becomes the same as the present tense or the imperative tense (which are also often identical to one another). This minor change is so unnoticeable that you're barely aware of the subjunctive's existence and like conjugating, you rarely realise you've even done it.

For English speakers, I think it's a lot like learning to drive an automatic car and then having to drive a manual. In English it's all pretty much done for you and you never realise it's actually happening. Once you move to a manual car, you start to realise the changes you have to make when you try to do something different, like going faster. Sadly, I grew up learning a language where the subjunctive is almost automatic, and now I struggle to change the grammatical mood manually.

Are you a native English speaker who finds the subjunctive mood difficult? Or does your mother tongue have an obvious and complicated subjunctive mood? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

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