Delightful tales of the English Subjunctive

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Just before leaving Spain I begged the Spaniard to take me to the hill where Jesus stood. He told me it was midday and too hot, but I pouted and he took me anyway. This is a photo from that hill. It’s got nothing to do with the subjunctive.
Region of Murcia, Spain, May 2019

When Rapunzel came to visit the other week, I greeted her off the train in Spanish. She doesn’t speak Spanish, so she replied in French and we flicked through the three languages as if it were a game we were playing.

As we settled back into English – it’s our only common language – the chap following us up into the station gave us both a very perplexed look. Our British accents, neither local to the area, didn’t fit with the flurry of foreign words we’d been giggling through.

But language can be a lot of fun

Yesterday, for example, I looked up Chilean Spanish.

“I’ve spent the last few months learning the Spanish future, to discover they don’t use it in Chile,” I messaged Rapunzel.

“No me gusta,” she replied in Spanish.

“Exactamente.”

We played with language for a few lines, discussing an article that’s relevant to Rapunzel printed in a Spanish newspaper. Then I asked her the question that was on my mind.

“Do you do subjunctives?”

“Je ne pense pas que ce soit necessaire.”

If you want to get a Spaniard to roll their eyes, you ask about the subjunctive

They seem to think that it’s obvious where it ought to be used. And that there’s nothing strange with the present subjunctive having two forms with identical meaning. As far as I can tell, the only purpose of this is to add poetical value of the word within its sentence.

The Spaniards are much fonder of using the subjunctive than us English speakers

Although I’ve never met anyone who’s persuaded me why. I mean, I understand that we do have such a form in English. Chances are, you use it without knowing. It’s a bit like how you know to use a noun and a verb before you learn the labels ‘noun’ and ‘verb’. But how does anyone know where to use it? It’s a mystery.

Our English subjunctive feels quite posh

And because it’s not so obvious and I didn’t know it, here it is:

In the present

It is necessary we be on time tomorrow.

I recommend he leave now.

In the past

If he were here.

If I were you.

I’m not convinced that I use the present subjunctive in my speech

Unless I was caricaturing someone posh. If anyone catches me doing so, can you please point it out to me? I’m curious to know.

Whereas I’m certain that I do use the past subjunctive

It’s simpler to identify than the present subjunctive because it always involves the word ‘were’. In the first- and third-person ‘were’ replaces ‘was’.

If I were you…

If you were nicer…

If he were here…

If we were happy…

If you all were intelligent…

If they were mad…

Here again, it gets complicated by my dialect

In Yorkshire, you may say ‘when I were there yesterday’ meaning ‘when I was there yesterday’. And in the town where I went to school, it’s also common to replace ‘were’ with ‘was’ as in ‘we was eating chocolate’. In standard English, this would be ‘we were eating chocolate’.

Thus, if someone were to say ‘If I was you’, I’m not sure I’d notice that they were in the indicative mood, not the subjunctive. Would you? Or am I blinded by my non-standard English?

Did you notice the ‘if someone were’ in the previous sentence is the past subjunctive?

This doesn’t help me understand how to use the subjunctive in Spanish

And Rapunzel is right. On an everyday basis, it is not necessary. You can get by alright without it. Even if the locals might despair of your ignorance.

But so much of language is not necessary, it doesn’t mean it’s not wondrous. Plus, the idea of conjugating a word for its poetic flavour makes me smile.

Jesus.
Region of Murcia, Spain, May 2019.