May 30, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Subjunctive mood & the appositive

Posted in appositive, subjunctive at 6:11 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Subjunctive mood

A reader writes:

I wanted to share a pet peeve with you, namely, the lack of appropriate use of the subjunctive mood in everyday English.

Here’s an example:  when I am on a US Airways flight, the flight attendants say, “The FAA requires that seat belts are fastened and your seats are in the upright and locked position.”  Better English would entail the use of the hortative subjunctive (rather than indicative voice), namely, “The FAA requires that seat belts BE fastened; and that seats BE in the upright and locked position…”

Here’s a plea for the subjunctive.  If only we WOULD use it….

I fear that the reader is right; I fear that we are losing the subjunctive mood which is sad. But I have to admit that its demise has been a long time coming. Fowler remarked on its passing in 1926 in his “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.” Actually, he not only remarked on it, he seemed to support its passing:

About the subjunctive…the important general facts are: (1) that it is moribund except in a few easily specified uses; (2) that owing to the capricious influence of the much analysed classical moods upon the less studied native, it probably would have never been possible to draw up a satisfactory table of English subjunctive use; (3) that assuredly no one will ever find it either possible or worth while to do so now that the subjunctive is dying; and (4) that the subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals, especially by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals giving a pretentious flavour to their context, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.

You’ve got to love Fowler. But, you know what, you have to love subjunctives, too. Even though they are dying out and have been since the fourteenth century according to some references, they are still hanging in, and we should give them the respect they deserve as venerable grammatical forms.

Here are some of my facts about the subjunctive mood: (1) that it is used when something is contrary to fact, whether it be related to an order, a request, a supposition, or a wish; (2) that its most common use is in ‘if’ phrases (e.g., if I were king, if I were a rich man) and ‘that’ phrases (e.g., I demand that Mary  go to the principal’s office at once); (3) that in the present, it expresses a command or wish and consists of the verb base (no ‘s’ or ‘es’ on the verb); and that in the past, the subjunctive expresses something that is imagined or hypothesized and consists of the plain past tense of a verb (with the exception of the verb ‘to be’ where the past subjunctive is always ‘were’).

Here are some examples of subjunctives:

If he were still living, he would be very proud of his children.

It’s important that everyone be here on time tomorrow.

The teacher asked that everyone be silent when the alarm sounded.

If the dog were not sleeping, he would see the boy running home.

Be that as it may, no one is going to the library today.

And, of course, our reader’s example:

“The FAA requires that seat belts BE fastened; and that seats BE in the upright and locked position…”

Like our reader, I like the subjunctive mood. My references noted that it is used, these days, more in writing than in conversation, and that’s probably true. And I bet that many would not recognize a subjunctive mood if it sat down beside them and winked. However, while I will continue to use it, I am not going to correct those who don’t (unless it is particularly egregious). The reason is this: there are words like ‘would’ and ‘could’ that would allow us to express the hypothetical or untrue essence of a thing without  resorting to the subjunctive. They are no better, but I think they are just as good. Another reason for letting people get away without using it is that it is very complicated and hard to explain. While the ‘were’ and ‘be’  and ‘plain past tense’ forms are pretty straight forward, others are not so.

Did you know that ‘hadn’t been’ is the subjunctive form for ‘wasn’t’? See what I mean?

So while I sympathize with this reader, I understand how the subjunctive mood can slide, albeit very, very slowly, away.

Tip 2: The appositive

A reader writes:

 I’ve seen lots of appositives lately with only one comma instead of two. My church website mentions “West, TX Disaster Relief,” and I saw a letter from a lawyer a few days ago that did the same thing with a name. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was along the lines of “Your son, Jimmy Bob did something.”

Was I taught appositives completely wrong? Or is this another case of everyone forgetting (or ignoring) how English works?

 First, let’s review what an appositive is. It is a noun or noun phrase next to another noun to identify or rename it.

 The book, the one with the red cover and blue printing, sat unread on my book shelf for years.

‘The one with the red cover and blue printing’ is the appositive in that sentence. It further explains or identifies the noun, ‘the book.’

My bother, David, lives in California.

 Here, ‘David’ is the appositive; it makes clear which brother lives in California.

But the reader is asking how to punctuate the appositive. Well, appositives are never punctuated the way seen in the reader’s examples. In fact, I would venture that the first example is not an appositive at all—it seems to be the name of some type of organization and assuming that “West” is the name of a town in Texas, the organization is the West, Texas Disaster Relief. That’s my guess, anyway. But the reader is right–we would never punctuate the next appositive this way:

 Your son, Jimmy Bob did something.

 It would either have commas on either side of it (the appositive) or no commas at all. And whether to use the commas or not is largely a matter of style. Some say that nonrestrictive appositives, that is, nouns or noun phrases that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence should be surrounded by commas. The people say that restrictive appositives, that is, appositives that are essential to communicate the meaning should not have commas.

For example, in my earlier example, if you know that I only have one brother, the appositive, ‘David’ is nonrestrictive because I could only mean ‘David,’ so it would be surrounded by commas.

 My bother, David, lives in California.

 If you know that I have three brothers, then ‘David’ is restrictive—we need it to know to which brother I was referring so the commas are out.

 My bother David lives in California.

But is more a case of styles than rules. The AMA Manual of Style says to ALWAYS us commas around an appositive. The Chicago Manual of Style follows the restrictive-nonrestrictive convention with regard to commas. So does Garner. I was taught to always use commas (or  m dashes or parentheses) around appositives, so that’s my habit. So it’s really up to you. The only rule, here, is that if you use one comma, then you have to use the other.

Your son, Jimmy Bob, did something.

And that’s the story on appositives.


  1. Warsaw Will said,

    Fowler was of course British, and the examples of present subjunctive you give would sound extremely formal to us Brits, although standard in American English. Instead we often use constructions with ‘should’ – ‘It’s important that everyone should be here on time tomorrow.’ or informally, normal tenses – It’s important that everyone is here on time tomorrow.

    As for the past subjunctive, I don’t see why using ‘was’ instead of ‘were’ for ‘I, he, she, it’ is meant to be confusing, as some people seem to think. As you say, for every other verb, and for all other persons of ‘be’, past subjunctive and indicative are exactly the same, as they are for past hypotheticals. Subjunctive ‘were’ in present hypothetical conditionals is in fact the exception:

    Indicative statement – He was late.
    Hypothetical – If he were/was late, he’d get into trouble – the exception
    Indicative statement – You were late.
    Hypothetical – If you were late, you’d get into trouble – no difference
    Indicative statement – I missed the bus.
    Hypothetical – If I missed the bus, I’d take a taxi – no difference

    Indicative statement – She had missed the bus.
    Past hypotheticaI – If she had missed the bus, … – no difference
    Indicative statement – She had been late before.
    Past hypothetical – If she had been late, … no difference

    And sorry, but I don’t understand how ‘hadn’t been’ can be the subjunctive of ‘wasn’t’ (the subjunctive of which is ‘weren’t’). It’s past perfect indicative, and has a different time reference to ‘wasn’t’. – ‘It wasn’t the first time I had been there, but Terry hadn’t been before.’ In past hypotheticals, the subjunctive ‘had been’ is in fact a hidden subjunctive, as the subjunctive and indicative forms are exactly the same – ‘hadn’t been’ for both.

  2. WendyShad said,

    Oh I love subjunctives–they seem to add more emotion to the content (and the more I try to use them the messier they’re getting my brain, and that’s part of the reason I love them). It’s so sad indeed that they’re dying. But that’s the way of evolution; as long as we don’t forget, we might as well just let it be.

    And am I just being opinionated, or you should’ve used its instead of it’s in “But I have to admit that it’s demise has been a long time coming”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      Did I do that? Thanks for letting me know so I can correct it.

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