Raining subjunctives

Today’s Zippy dips into morphosyntax:

The three panels are far from parallel. Adjective and Adverb are the names of major syntactic categories, while Past Subjective and Present Subjunctive are (intended to be) the names of infectional forms of Verb words: the Present Subjunctive in things like

(1) I insist that Sandy be promoted.

and the Past Subjunctive in things like

(2) Were Sandy my friend, I would be proud.

Now the traditional terminology in such matters is so screwed up that it’s hard to know where to begin. But it’s clear that Present / Past Subjunctive are not the names of “parts of speech” (major syntactic categories).

Given uses of Subjunctive as the name of an inflectional form in Greek and Latin and the descendants of Latin, the use of the term for (1) and (2) is not entirely crazy (the clauses in question are not Indicative, in traditional terms, in that their semantics doesn’t involve an assertion or presumption of truth), but in English we’re looking at a property of clauses, not of individual verb words. In (1), the subordinate object clause has a verb in the BSE form, the form also used in imperative sentences, in to-marked infinitival VPs, and many other places), in a clause construction we might call mandative, since it expresses desires, demands, recommendations, necessary truths, and the like; in (2), the adverbial subordinate clause has a verb in a form I’ll call CNF (to suggest ‘counterfactual’), in a clause construction — one of several, this one involving inverted word order — we might call counterfactual, since it expresses.a presumption of non-factuality.

The labels Present and Past are much more peculiar. The so-called Present Subjunctive can in fact have pretty much any time reference, and the so-called Past Subjunctive is essentially out of time. It appears that the Present Subjunctive is called that because its forms look like present (indicative) forms, and the Past Subjunctive because its forms look like past (indicative) forms, and temporal semantics is really beside the point.

Still, you might not like having clauses raining down on you. They’re so much weightier than words, and ordinary umbrellas might not suffice.

[Note added the next day: I’m not taking Zippy, or (back of him, Bill Griffith) for unthinkingly taking over the traditional terminology; it’s just what they were taught in school – in Dingburg, for Zippy; in Levittown, Long Island, for Griffith. But the traditional terminology is seriously messed up for application to English, and in any case, it’s a grave error to think of the terminology as a description or account of anything (morphology, syntax, or semantics): Labels Are Not Definitions, as I keep saying.

In any case, here are the key Language Log postings on the so-called Subjunctive in English:

GP, 7/1/14: Prescriptivism and ignorance, together again

AZ, 7/11/04: “Losing” “the subjective”

GP, 2 /27/12: The “sports subjunctive”: neither sports-related nor subjunctive

ML, 9/11/12: Sounding the alarm on the subjunctive ]

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