Thought — 2 Min Read

Lost Subjunctive

by Case Greenfield, December 11th, 2023

Thought — 2 Min Read

Lost Subjunctive

by Case Greenfield

December 11th, 2023

In the post-truth era, if we would more often honestly express that we don’t know for sure, or even that we know it is not necessarily true, using the subjunctive, then we would have much more fruitful discussion, around the world.

We have lost the subjunctive.

And that is a problem!

Say what? What have we lost? The subjunctive? What the … is a subjunctive? And how have we lost it? And why is that a problem?

Okay, okay. Relax.

Let me explain

The subjunctive or ‘conjunctivus’ in Latin is a morphological conjugation of a verb in written or spoken language. It used to be abundant in Old English, but is quite rare in Modern English, which as I said is a problem, because English is the dominant language in the world.

In some languages it is still used frequently. In German you see it quite a lot, eg. Hätte Ich nur …” meaning “If only I had …”. Without ‘Konjunktiv’ this would have been “Hatte Ich nur …”. In the French language you see it as well, the ‘subjonctive’ eg. “Je veux que tu saches …” in stead of “Je veux que tu sais …”, meaning “I want you to know …”.

So what is the subjunctive (Wikipedia)?

The subjunctive (also known as conjunctive in some languages, from Latin coniunctivus) is a grammatical mood, a feature of an utterance that indicates the speaker’s attitude toward it. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language. The subjunctive is one of the irrealis moods, which refer to what is not necessarily real. It is often contrasted with the indicative, a realis mood which principally indicates that something is a statement of fact.

Subjunctives occur most often, although not exclusively, in subordinate clauses, particularly that-clauses. Examples of the subjunctive in English are found in the sentences “I suggest that you be careful” and “It is important that she stay by your side.” (…)

It is interesting that Wikipedia speaks of the subjunctive as a grammatical mood. Subjunctives are use to express – and here it comes – states of un-reality. It’s about something that I wish were true, something that could become reality, etc.

The post-truth world

Using the subjunctive we explicitly express something to be not real, not reality, untrue. Well, that would be a relief in the post-truth world, the era of fake news, of ever-present marketing, of propaganda, of plain untruth …

… because in the post-truth world what we wish were true (irrealis) often is expressed as the truth (realis). Stated differently, what often happens is that “my reality” or “our reality” is expressed as if it were “scientific reality” or even “universal reality”. Our mind model is presented as ‘the truth’, because it is our ‘truth’.

Why? Simple. The most innocent reason is to prevent cognitive dissonance; we want to prevent this eerie feeling that something is not right in what we say or think. A less innocent reason is that we consciously or unconsciously want to force ideas and as a result situations that are advantageous to us upon others, luring the others into our ‘reality’. Two ways of wishful thinking.

And, of course, we find it difficult to live with uncertainty. We rather believe a simple consoling, confirming lie than to try to accept the confronting, brutal reality.

We rather believe a simple consoling, confirming lie than to try to accept the confronting, brutal reality.

And we phrase those consoling, confirming untruths in the indicative, the realis mood, stressing that what we say is the truth (our truth). While we should, of course, at least use the subjunctive, the irrealis mood, stressing that what we say could or could not be true.

That is what I mean when I say we lost the subjunctive!

Regain subjunctivity

So, how can we ‘regain subjunctivity’ in modern English (and other modern languages)? The subjunctive honestly expresses that we don’t know for sure, or even that we know it is not true but could … maybe … one day … or never.

Well, for starters we could (haha) start with using words like could, would, might, may be, maybe, eventually, possibly, should, imho (meaning in my humble opinion in modern social media shorthand), I think, I feel, in affirmative sentences. And could a second way, even better maybe, be to ask investigating questions rather that pose affirmative statements? If that would be feasible in the real world (risking to be blamed a ‘doubter’, not strong)  … or am I being too much of a philosopher now? Is this too Socratic?

Anyway, I truely believe it could result in much more fruitful discussion, around the world. Or not?

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