I was reading The Copyeditor’s Handbook this evening. (You don’t spend Saturday night studying grammar and English usage? Try it sometime with a glass of sangria. Trust me on this.) Suddenly, a question struck me: what the hell does subjunctive mean?
Do you know? Does anyone know? Are you embarrassed that you don’t know? Did I spell embarrassed right?
Merriam Webster tried to help me. Subjunctive: of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire).
To make matters worse, subjunctive is not just another tense but a mood of a verb. Verbs have moods? Will they be throwing tantrums next? Drowning their sorrows in sangria? Maybe a verb will just get up and walk out in a huff. Some verbs would do that. Stink, for example. Isn’t that just the kind of verb that would stomp away mad?
I turned to The Gregg next. Subjunctive: Used in dependent clauses following main clauses expressing necessity, demand, or wishing; also used in if, as if, and as though clauses that state conditions which are improbable, doubtful, or contrary to fact.
Aha! If you are demanding, wishing, or contradicting fact, you must subjunct. (No, subjunct is not a word. I made it up. Don’t tell Mr. Webster, or even Mr. Merriam.)
I wish I were on the train to Paris.
It is imperative that I be sent to Paris for the conference.
I insist that she refuse the ticket to Paris. I want it!
I would also subjunct if I were to use an if clause.
If I were a rich man…da di da di da di da di da di da di da di di…
Got that, everybody? No? Let me make it simpler.
Subjunctive: a weird form of a verb that you wouldn’t normally use (like I were or she refuse), used because you are in a demanding or wishing or contradicting mood.
In which case perhaps you ought to have a little more sangria and choose a normal verb. Just sayin’.