If English Have a Subjunctive, What Be It? – World of Better Learning

Lawrence J. Zwier is an Associate Director of the English Language Center, Michigan State University. He has taught ESL/EFL at universities in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and the US Larry is the author of numerous ELT textbooks, mostly about reading and vocabulary, and also writes non-fiction books about history and geography for middle school and high school students. In this post, Lawrence reviews the history and modern use of subjunctive verbs.

Does the title of this article look strange? Good. If you agree that it is English at all (and it is), you might call it archaic or, more reverently, Shakespearean. “Pirate talk” would probably cross many minds.

What is a subjunctive verb?

A subjunctive verb is one that has a distinctive form to indicate a speculative, hypothetical, wished-for, or contingent situation. For example, in the sentence, Truth be told, I’m boredthe verb be is in the subjunctive mood. In the normal indicative mood—which is how most modern English speakers would present it—the clause would be If the truth is told….This example of the subjunctive employs a bare (to-less) infinitive form of the verb. Other subjunctives like If I were you, I’d run

Through the ages

Grammarians of 100 years ago might have felt confident calling those bare infinitives (have and be) “subjunctives.” Grammarians of 50 years ago would not have been so sure. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, there was widespread recognition that subjunctives were barely alive in English. HW Fowler (1965), who was no rule-flouting radical, declared that the subjunctive in English was “moribund,” that it was never clear anyway what an English subjunctive was, and that many modern attempts to use it are “artificial.”[1]

Fowler gets no argument from me. Except for the “suggest subjunctive” (described after the table, below), English does fine without a discrete mood for expressing contingency or speculation. In present-day English with modals, conjunctions, and adverbials. We also have a hard enough time clarifying for students how to form conditions without dropping a whole new verb mood into the mix.

Surviving subjunctive verbs

Unfortunately, however, we are not free to turn our backs on subjunctives altogether, because some have survived into the present and are quite common. English-language learners, especially from intermediate levels upward, have a good chance of reading or hearing fixed or semi-fixed expressions with subjunctives–eg, truth be told, be that as it may, far be it from me to, and come Monday (Tuesday, summer, etc.). ESL/EFL teachers may have some explaining to do.

Teachers braver than me might charge into the breach and try to unravel those for students. If that is you, the Force be with you. I will choose a simpler path, pointing out that these few expressions are multiword vocabulary items that should be learned, stored, and retrieved as wholes. To me, this represents a more accurate modern explanation. We use these few surviving subjunctives only because they have come down to us as prefabricated units. Truth be told is invariable, and its idiosyncrasies (a missing article; the bare infinitive be) don’t reflect any productive syntactic principles. It has no analogous cousins—not *truth be known, *truth have power, or *identity be known. Even when a phrase of this type is variable—as is come with a noun for a time or event (Come summer, I’ll be in Baltimore or Come graduation, let’s still see each other)—it is so only within tight limits.

Here is a table with some common fixed expressions that involve subjunctives. Students should learn each of these expressions as a whole

Fixed expressions with subjunctives

Fixed expressions with subjunctives Example sentences Explanation
Be that as it may A: It’s cold and I’m tired. B: Be that as it may. We have to keep going. Even though it may be true that it’s cold and you’re tired, we have to keep going.
Be it ever so humble, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. From the song “Home Sweet Home” (1823); lyrics by John Howard Payne
Bless you / God bless you A: Ahchoo! [sneezes] B: Bless you. Traditional stock phrase in response to a sneeze.
Come [Monday/next week/my birthday…] Come Monday, I’ll be done with classes. When Monday comes, I’ll be done with classes.
Come hell or high water Kevin’s going to finish this project come hell or high water. No matter what happens, Kevin is going to finish his project.
Come what may Come what may, we’ll always be friends. No matter what happens, we’ll always be friends.
Far be it from me A: Could you please stop humming? B: Sorry. Far be it from me to disturb you. Sorry. I certainly would never want to disturb you. (This may be said sincerely or sarcastically.)
Heaven forbid A: Leo says you can’t schedule any meetings before 10 am B: Oh! Heaven forbid we disturb his sleep. It would be terrible if we disturbed his sleep. (This is probably said sarcastically.)
Heaven help us A: This rain could cause more flooding. B: Heaven help us! That’s terrible. I hope we can make it through the tough times.
If [it/he/college…] were If college were cheaper, more people could attend. In modern English this subjunctive verb might be replaced by a verb with normal inflections (“If college was cheaper…).
If you need be If you get tired, let me know. I’ll drive if need be. I’ll drive if necessary.
So be it A: We can’t see the play. The tickets are all sold out. B: So be it. That’s the way things go. There’s nothing we can do about it.
Suffice it to say A: What did you think of Jim’s house? B: Suffice it to say, it’s not my style. All I’ll say about it is that it is not my style.
That’s as may be A: Three of our staff have called in sick. B: That’s as may be. We still have to serve customers. That makes no difference. Even though we have fewer staff we still have to serve customers.
The powers that be Somebody ought to tell the powers that be to fix this bridge. Someone should tell the people in power to fix this bridge.
Truth be told Truth be told, I’ve never liked roller coasters. To be honest, I’ve never like roller coasters.

Earlier we mentioned what I call the “suggest subjunctive.” Our discussion has excluded this type of subjunctive because it is actually not archaic, fixed, or unproductive. This involves verbs in clauses that are complements of other verbs like suggest, demand, insist, ask, request, and advise. In the sentence, I insist that Tommy cook his own dinner, the bare infinitive is necessary—that is, if the speaker means that Tommy is required to cook under some rule that the speaker intends to enforce. This differs from I insist that Tommy cooks his own dinner. In the latter, the speaker is declaring (probably in the face of opposition) that Tommy truly does the cooking. This highly productive form of the subjunctive is worth a newsletter article of its own, which we hope to feature in the future. Perhaps we can also find room in this newsletter to delve further into the always enjoyable topic of “Pirate Talk”—including such classics as Shiver me timbers and Here be dragons. Be that as it may.

In the downloadable that acccompanies this article, you can see a longer roster of these fixed expressions and some exercises to help your students see them in context.

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[1] Fowler, H.W. (1965 .)). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd, edition revised by E. Gowers. New York: Oxford University Press, p.595.

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