Monday, May 2, 2016

Prof Bas Aarts is wrong about the subjunctive mood

Prof Bas Aarts is among the world's most influential linguists today. He teaches English Linguistics at UCL and has for ages been the Director of the Survey of English Usage, a post held formerly by Randolph Quirk who's the author of some of the world's most authoritative books on grammar. Whatever Aarts says is of great importance to teachers and students of English. But while I acknowledge Prof Aarts's undoubted cachet in the world of English linguistics, it would be irresponsible of me to be silent on a serious error which he has made in his treatment of the subjunctive mood. 

Although some grammarians have predicted the demise of the subjunctive, many do not go so far as to deny its importance in the study of the English language. All authoritative books on grammar and usage have a section on the subjunctive. One of the most recent books, the 4th edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage (edited by Jeremy Butterfield in June 2015) is no different; it examines the subjunctive mood in 3 columns of fine print.

This is what Aarts says on the subjunctive in his blog:
The question now arises whether it makes sense to say that English has subjunctive verb forms in the same way that French does. Many grammar books will tell you that it does. However, if you think about it you will realize that, unlike French, English has no special dedicated ‘present subjunctive endings’ on the verb in examples such as the one cited above. Therefore, English has no subjunctive mood. In fact, the form of the verb is simply the base form (sometimes also called the plain form), that we also find in sentences where infinitives are used.
Nobody will deny that English has no subjunctive verb forms in the same way that French has but that is absolutely irrelevant. A mere absence of a dedicated verb form for the subjunctive does not necessarily mean that there is no subjunctive at all in English, which is what Aarts is saying. Aarts says further,
In view of this it makes more sense to speak of subjunctive clauses than of subjunctive verb forms.

The absence of a dedicated verb ending indicates there is no subjunctive?

At first, I thought Aarts was merely going on pure semantics when he says 'English has no subjuntive mood'. I don't care what you call it . If you think it makes more sense to speak of the subjunctive clause than the subjunctive verb forms, that means nothing to me. But I soon realised that Aarts was going one step further. It's not just a matter of calling it a subjunctive clause as opposed to a subjunctive verb form that is the thrust of what he is saying. He's suggesting that the subjunctive should not be in the National Curriculum (NC). To the questions, 'What about subjunctives? Do kids really need to know about them?' Aarts replies:
No, they don’t. As is by now well-known, linguists advised the DfE to remove the subjunctive from the NC. Michael Gove insisted that it remain(s) in the NC. 
If we can just ignore the bit of humour which in fact proves that the subjunctive does exist in English, Aarts is not merely saying that we should call it the subjunctive clause instead of the subjunctive mood which is something I have no quarrel with. He's saying students don't need to know about the subjunctive because English has no subjunctive mood. That is surely wrong.

The only reason Aarts gives for his conclusion that English has no subjunctive mood is that there is no dedicated subjunctive verb ending in English unlike in some other languages. I've examined his blog very carefully and that is the ONLY reason he gives. I will show in this post why that is wrong.  It is not the subjunctive alone that has no dedicated verb ending in English.

English has no dedicated verb ending for the imperative.

The imperative mood in English is rather underdeveloped. Unlike Latin which has a highly sophisticated imperative mood and has imperatives for the present and the future, English has the imperative mood only for the present and only for the second person. For the first and third persons, one is compelled to use the form let + object + infinitive or to use the interrogative. But what is more relevant to us is the absence of any dedicated verb endings in the imperative mood in English.

Is Bas Aarts suggesting that the imperative mood should be removed from the NC as well? Would he say that there is no imperative mood in English because there is no dedicated verb endings for the imperative? That would be preposterous.

English has no dedicated verb ending for the infinitive.

Now, let's look at the infinitive. Again, unlike Latin and some other languages, English has no dedicated verb ending for the infinitive. There is absolutely no difference in the verb form for the subjunctive, imperative and infinitive moods. Again, would Bas Aarts say that English has no infinitive because there is no dedicated verb ending for it? There is no justification for Aarts to suggest the removal of the subjunctive mood from the curriculum but not the infinitive. Nobody will argue that the infinitive be removed from the NC because if you don't teach the infinitive, you might as well not teach English at all.

It's wrong to conclude that there is no subjunctive mood because there is no dedicated verb ending.

The same argument that Aarts makes against the subjunctive can also be made against the infinitive and the imperative moods but no educator would suggest removing the infinitive from the school curriculum. Even where the notionally subjunctive and indicative forms are identical and the subjunctive becomes invisible, a student must be taught to recognise the subjunctive mood and to differentiate it from the indicative. 

Are there other reasons to justify the removal of the subjunctive from the school syllabus?

While Aarts's reason for removing the subjunctive from the NC may be flawed and misconceived, perhaps there are other reasons why the subjunctive should be disregarded?

I can only think of the belief some grammarians have that the subjunctive is dying. As long ago as the early part of the last century, Henry Fowler predicted the demise of the subjunctive in English. In a comment about drawing up a satisfactory table of subjunctive uses, Fowler in 1926 said, '...assuredly no-one will ever find it either possible or worth while to do so now that the subjunctive is dying.' While commenting on a different aspect of grammar, Fowler wrote, 'Subjunctives are nearly dead.' 

Is the subjunctive moribund?

We have moved on to the next century and it's been 90 years since Fowler pronounced the impending demise of the subjunctive in 1926 and we're asking the same question. Is it dying? But let's be practical. Prof Aas Barts has said quite categorically that students do not need to know the subjunctive. It should be removed from the National Curriculum and his opinion is simply that English has no subjunctive. Rather than confusing our minds with predictions of whether the subjunctive is dying, we should focus our attention on whether the subjunctive should be removed from the school curriculum, not only in Britain but also in other countries all over the world.

Why we should continue to teach the subjunctive

I will concede one small point. It is not wrong to say that mandative subjunctives are dying and they are increasingly being replaced by should + infinitive without any discernible change of meaning. But there are other forms of the subjunctive that won't ever be moribund. 

1.  Evergreen subjunctives

Subjunctives will survive our need to have witnesses telling the truth in court where they swear 'to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God'.  They will survive Britain's monarchy - the national anthem provides titular assurance of the continued currency of the subjunctive. They will survive the Church where the Lord's Prayer is daily recited and we say 'Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven'. They will survive human compassion, love and kindness, as we say 'God bless you' to one another. They will survive our grit and determination, as we bite the bullet in the face of trouble and adversity and say, 'So be it!' I can go on endlessly but I'm sure it's clear how important the subjunctive really is.

And quite apart from these standard clauses (and there are many more) which their detractors will undoubtedly call 'fossilised clauses', there's also a whole range of the 'If I were you' form which will, I believe, always be preserved simply because the human mind is too logical to abandon it for the indicative.

2.  The influence of American English

I said earlier that mandative subjunctives were dying. But when I say that, I'm not taking into account the situation in America where they are very much alive and kicking and can quite commonly be found in formal speech and writing. For more than a century, the trend has always been for American English to make relentless inroads into British English, however much purists may want to kick against the pricks. You don't need to be a linguistic soothsayer to know that what's standard in America will soon be common usage in England. In today's age of Information Technology, Americanisms usually don't last very long before they get assimilated into the language of the entire English-speaking world.

If we take into account this natural but unstoppable influence of American English, it's not unreasonable to predict that mandative subjunctives may very well make a comeback. 

3.  The simplicity of the subjunctive mood

Nobody is suggesting that children be made to read Visser's An Historical Syntax of the English Language where the subjunctive is examined in tedious detail over more than 150 pages.

In most modern grammars, the subjunctive mood is easily dealt with in just a page or two. In the Oxford Guide to English Grammar, only two or three pages are devoted to it. In the usually wordy A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the subjunctive is more than adequately covered in short sentences and paragraphs over a total of not more than a dozen pages. Any competent teacher should be able to teach everything that a child needs to know about the subjunctive in no more than two short lessons. 

Why would anyone want to remove something from the school curriculum that is an integral part of English grammar and that can easily be taught to students? 

There is one more comment I want to make for the benefit of those of us who have studied other languages which we may regard as structurally more robust than English. The temptation is always very strong for us to apply what we know in other languages to English. Aarts does precisely this when he looks at the verb endings of the French subjunctive and erroneously concludes that since English has nothing similar, there is no subjunctive mood in English. Comparing English with other languages or foisting the rules of other languages on English is an error many previous grammarians have made. The superstitious shibboleth against split infinitives and the equally incorrect insistence that you should never end a sentence with a preposition were all ridiculous rules that were born out of this unhealthy habit of looking to other languages for guidance on English grammar.


  1. Having read Bas Aarts's post, I agree with everything you say here. To take his logic one step further, one could say that only some French verb forms performing a function normally thought of as subjunctive are real subjunctives, since others take the same form as the indicative. That can't be right.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You might want to say something in Bas Aarts's website. As you probably know, he totally left out the topic of subjunctive in his Oxford Modern English Grammar. In my latest blog post,, I pointed out another grammatical quirk of his. We should all voice our disagreement audibly or these prolific writers (I include Geoffrey Pullum too) will flood the libraries with their version of grammar which may be novel but is undoubtedly erroneous.