Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Great English Subjunctive Mood

I know it has been awhile so I shall try to catch up. Yes, it's been one and a half years since I last wrote in this blog. It seems as though that were an eternity ago, doesn't it? No matter, though. I am glad to be back and I am glad to be writing once again. If only things in my life were going well, all would be fine. Alas, this is not so so I have to make the most of what I can.

Anyway, let's begin with today's topic of grammar---the subjunctive mood. Yes, I know that I've browbeaten this topic in the past, but it's a very important rule in grammar so it must be browbeaten lest the masses forget how it is used. Aha! There is that tricky subjunctive conjugation in "lest the masses forget". Here, the verb "forget" is in its third person plural present subjunctive conjugation. Unfortunately, in Modern English, there is no difference between the plural present subjunctive and indicative unless it be conjugated in a negated form ("unless it be conjugated" is subjunctive, too!!!).

Really, generally speaking, though, the English subjunctive is nominal. It plays a small role in our grammar because our language has syncretized over the last 400 years. In inflectional languages such as French, Spanish, and Latin, it plays an enormous role. In fact, in Old English, the subjunctive played a huge role. This was mainly because of the fact that modal verbs hadn't formed yet and verbs inflected more.

The subjunctive in Modern English is normally considered a relic of the Old English subjunctive---the remnants of a once vast conjugational system that is now virtually extinct. One form that is a virtual relic is the past subjunctive "were" form, which is used often in hypothetical or conditional situations:

Example: If I were in charge of this project, I would fire you.

Of course, normally one would expect to see the conjugation "was" collocated with the pronoun "I", but not here because this is a remnant of the Old English past subjunctive. In Modern English, all other verbs in the past subjunctive look just like the past indicative:

Example: If he ruled England, he would have you hanged for such effrontery.

As you can see, "ruled" looks just like the past indicative, but it really isn't---it's actually a past subjunctive form. In Old English, there was a difference between the past indicative and past subjunctive, but, in Modern English, this is no longer the case except for the verb "to be".

Personally, if you should find this rule to be difficult to understand, then you're in luck. Many grammar books now consider this pedantic rule to be optional. Even though this may be true, it is still considered a sign of an educated speaker. Furthermore, it is used by many literati in an effort to enhance their writing. The subjunctive can give a formal and archaic tone to one's writing so that may be the reason for its being so popular in the literary world. Below are examples of some literary subjunctive forms:


O that I were a man!
Far be it from me to tell you what to do.
Be they big or small, I will crush them all!
If this be treason, make the most of it!

There are present perfect and past perfect subjunctive forms, too. Had you asked earlier, I would have posited some examples for you to look at. Aha, again! There's the past perfect subjunctive in that last sentence. Although the past perfect subjunctive is regularly common in modern parlance, this is not so for the present perfect subjunctive. In fact, people usually gasp and cringe at the mere presence of the pure English present perfect subjunctive when it is uttered in a conversation. Here are a few examples of it:


It is necessary that each candidate have lived in his respective state for at least five years.
In the event that he have finished all of his work, he may go home.
I won't pay her unless she have completed all of her chores.
I pray that he have seen the error of his ways.

I hope that this might not have been too difficult for you to understand. It is not all that difficult. Well, thanks for listening, my friends and I shall talk to you later. Ciao!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Formal Grammar: The English Subjunctive Revisited From Its Death Throes

Here are some good examples of the subjunctive in English that I have found on the Internet. Who says the subjunctive is dead?

  • It is a good idea that you be a fastidious grammar student. (active simple present subjunctive)

  • The boss desires that all employees be working while she is gone. (active present progressive subjunctive)

  • It is desirable that she have incorporated her references in her exegesis. (active present perfect subjunctive)

  • The parents demand that the child have been cleaning his room for at least an hour before going out to play. (active present perfect-progressive subjunctive)

  • If I were a wealthy man, I would not be working here. (active simple past subjunctive)

  • The teacher would not have to yell if the class were behaving. (active past progressive subjunctive)

  • If I had eaten my vegetables when I was younger, I wouldn't be so short now. (active past perfect subjunctive)

  • If the boy had been studying as he has claimed repeatedly, he would not have failed the test. (active past perfect-progressive subjunctive)

  • The prosecutor insisted that the defendant be found guilty for his crimes. (passive simple present subjunctive)

  • It is vital that alcoholic drinks be being drunk by only adults age 21 and older at the party tonight. (passive present progressive subjunctive)

  • It is essential that references have been incorporated in your exegesis. (passive present perfect subjunctive)

  • The panel asks that the final report have been being compiled by the staff. (passive present perfect-progressive subjunctive)

  • If your car were damaged in an accident, then you could sue for damages. (passive simple past subjunctive)

  • If I were being mistreated, then I would tell you. (passive past progressive subjunctive)

  • If your house had been damaged by the storm, then you could have filed an insurance claim. (passive past perfect subjunctive)

  • If the pumpkins had not been being smashed by kids, then we would have had dozens for Halloween. (passive past perfect-progressive subjunctive)

While these examples might be that of formal English, the subjunctive can occur in far less formal statements. Here are examples of some formal situations and less formal situations wherein a person can see the subjunctive:

  • How about I be the pitcher?
  • God help us.
  • Subjunctive be damned!
  • It was, as it were, a miracle.
  • Come Sunday, we'll be ready.
  • I wish you were here.
  • Be he dead or alive, bring him to me!
  • The powers that be have spoken.
  • I may be able to answer that if I be permitted to speak.
  • If it please the court, I shall take the stand.
  • I want you to do it so that it be done correctly.
  • Whether he allow it or not, we'll do it anyway.
  • I pray that we not fail.
  • I hope that you be on time for once.
  • God forbid he run for office.

Okay, these are some more examples of the subjunctive in English. As you can see, it might not be so ponderous as you might have thought it would be. Many people say it all of the time without even noticing. I figured I should bring this up again lest it be forgotten by the canaille.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Drunken Fisherman

The Drunken Fisherman

It is not a mystery that poems elicit different feelings and images from people of all ages, races, and creeds. It is possible that one poem could evoke a feeling of empathy from one reader who bethinks himself of times he, too, had something similar occur whereas another reader may have a feeling of despondency from the same poem. It is this credo that works are intrinsically subjective that can make understanding and critiquing poems the most enjoyable because it is incumbent upon him who reads them.

In the poem, The Drunken Fisherman by, Robert Lowell, a person may picture himself fishing along a river bank, which can evoke, from the reader, feelings of serenity. Whenever I read this poem, I feel as though I were somewhere far away, having escaped all of my troubles and worries, with only the grassy knolls and the sound of the running river between me and all of the hardships of my life.

This feeling is especially elicited in the lines, "I cast for fish that pleased my eye/ Truly Jehovah's bow suspends/ No pots of gold to weight its ends" (2-4). These lines can tell the reader that the main character is doing all of this for recreation. The words, "no pots of gold to weight its ends" evoke this feeling that the fisherman is not doing this for his livelihood.

This poem can also elicit a feeling of somberness and finality to its reader after the fisherman, in the poem, catches his fish. This feeling is consistent in the lines:

Only the blood-mouthed rainbow trout
Rose to my bait. They flopped about
My canvas creel until the moth
Corrupted its unstable cloth (5-8).

In these lines, the reader can picture that the fisherman is only catching rainbow trout and that they are dying as he puts them in his basket. The death of these fish produces this somber feeling of finality for the reader. The words "flopped about" portray how the fish are trying desperately to escape from the fisherman's basket but to no avail.

It is unknown to the reader whether the fisherman might actually want to catch rainbow trout. The "gap" in this poem could be the fact that the fisherman really does not like rainbow trout. This can be inferred when the fisherman states, "I cast for fish that pleased my eye" (2), but then avers that, "Only the blood-mouthed rainbow trout/ Rose to my bait" (5-6). Here, one can picture that the fisherman is looking for certain kinds of fish, but the lowly rainbow trout are the only fish that are biting for him. In the end, the fisherman just concedes to this fact and places the fish in his creel.

The passing of time and sheer solitude of the fisherman's surroundings are also exemplified to the reader in the lines, "A calendar to tell the days/ A handkerchief to wave away/ The gnats" (9-11). Here, the word, "calendar" exemplifies this feeling of the passing of time whereas the handkerchief that is being used to swat the gnats portrays the fisherman to be in a serene area somewhere deep in the wilderness. This evocation of the passing of time can also be seen in the lines, "O wind blow cold, O wind blow hot/ Let suns stay in or suns step out" (17-18). In these two lines, the reader can infer that the sun is rising and setting and that the fisherman's surroundings are growing colder and then warmer. This seems to be signifying the changing of days.

A "digger for secret" may be best portrayed in the lines, "Children, the raging memory drools/ Over the glory of past pools" (23-24). The reader may get this feeling of nostalgia from the fisherman in the poem. He seems to be reminiscing to the days of his childhood—to a time when he was fishing as a young boy and made some "glorious" catches. This evocation of magisterial catches comes from the words, "glory of past pools" whereas "memory drools" can be inferred as the fisherman's drifting into a daydream as he remembers these good times.

From a psychological aspect, the character also seems to be very reclusive and may be trying to escape from all of his troubles. This feeling of escaping his troubles can be limned from the fact that the fisherman appears to be drunk in the poem. The reader can infer this in the line, "Pouching a bottle in one arm" (12), wherein it seems as though the fisherman has been drinking. In line 23, a "whiskey bottle" is mentioned, which denotes even more the possibility that some drinking has occurred. The reclusive aspect of this fisherman is denoted from the fact that no other characters are mentioned in this poem. From the reader's perspective, the fisherman is alone in the wilderness and the fish are his only company.

In the final stanza, the reader can infer that the fisherman is upset about his catch when he says, "Is there no way to cast my hook/ Out of this dynamited brook" (33-34). The participle, "dynamited" signals to the reader that there is nothing to be caught in this brook. It also limns frustration on the part of the fisherman who seems to be cursing the brook wherein he is fishing. His question, "Is there no way to cast my hook" (33) seems to be somewhat sarcastic and rhetorical—as if the reason for not catching any fish were directly related to how he casts his hook into the water.

In the end, this poem can be interpreted in many different ways. The old axiom, "to each his own" comes to mind because each person may glean from this poem whatever he may, and no interpretation is wrong. Whether the reader think the poem is somber and reclusive or angry and sarcastic is totally subjective in nature. There is no right or wrong answer when trying to understand the meaning of any author's works. It really all depends on the reader's own response.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Semantics of What We Say

There is a big reason that I talk about the subjunctive and indicative moods in English a lot. It's not that I just want to talk about them—the main reason is that it is important to understand the semantics behind what we say so that our meaning not become convolved or confused in any way.

Yes, it is true that English is a syncretic language; therefore the subjunctive plays a minute role, but what little of the subjunctive that we can see is important because if someone were to say it in the indicative one time and then the subjunctive the next, all of a sudden, it would be possible to have two statements that mean entirely different things. Here's a comparitive example:

Example: John, will you make sure that my son is buckled up? (This means semantically that the speaker wants John to check to see whether his son is buckled up.)

Example: John, will you make sure that my son be buckled up? (This means semantically that the speaker wants John to guarantee that his son will be buckled up.)

Again, normally we cannot notice this because of syncretism, but whenever we can, it is important that we differentiate between the two because of its semantic and syntactic differences. Normally, though, any idiot can understand the speaker's meaning by context. This is the one reason that the subjunctive, at least in English, is a moot point.

My biggest pet peeve, though, has to be the use of "would" in the protasis of the past perfect subjunctive. I cannot understand what fool would construct a sentence like this:

Example: If he would have hit the ball to right field, he would have gotten a base-hit. (I heard this one tonight at baseball practice. My friend, Jon said it.)

Correct Example: If he had hit the ball to right field, he would have gotten a base-hit. (This is still part of the subjunctive that grammarians won't let die. May it live on and not be corrupted by fools.)

Again, it's not a big problem because any idiot can figure out what the speaker means. The big question I have about this is the diachrony of this error. Where did it come from? How has it spread? It's the same with the whole "was/were" past indicative/subjunctive constructions. There must be a reason for this diachronic shift in construction. I mean, I seldom hear the pluperfect subjunctive anymore and this is by no means a moribund area of the English subjunctive mood. Here's one that's common though:

Example: I wish this team was our actual team, except for Rubin. (This was said at baseball practice today by my friend, Stephen.)

This is just another attack on the past subjunctive wherein "were" would be the correct verb conjugation, but again, this is picayune. I'm not here to beat a dead horse; I'm here to explain the semantics of these constructions so that there be very little confusion regarding whether it be "was" or "were" or whatnot.

Remember, in formal English writing, whether it be considered didactic or not, it is crucial that you make sure that your reader understand exactly what you want him to know. You should be careful not to confound the reader in any way, shape, or form. If English weren't so syncretic, though, it would be far easier to get your point across. You just have to make due while you write your paper or whatnot.

Perhaps, one day, all of these constructions will be considered grammatically correct. As of now, though, the only concession grammarians have made is to the present subjunctive forms, and this is not a total concession. The past and pluperfect constructions still must be adhered to, or so they say, yet over the last twenty years, this, too, has started to attenuate.

It really doesn't matter, though; this is just some food for thought. Please write to me to tell me about what you think in regard to this topic. I'm curious as to what others might have to say when it appertains to the semantics of these types of construction.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Woe Is I

I believe I have talked about the predicate nominative before, but if I recall correctly, it was just an excursive, cursory explanation of it. With that said, I still want to expound further on this precept so that there be no confusion per se.

As you are probably eminently aware, the title explains this concept of the predicate nominative—"Woe is I"—instead of the more traditional way of saying, "Woe is me". Yes, I know Shakespeare did say, "Woe is me" and I am in no way saying that he was wrong for having said it like this. In fact, standard English grammatical rules weren't established until the mid-seventeenth century so Shakespeare had been dead approximately half of a century before English was standardized; therefore he was not wrong when he said it in this way.

Furthermore, not to rend the grammatical rules along with the semantics of this construction, but using an objective pronoun following a copula is just informal; it in no way impugns the interlocutor in any way. In fact, it may enhance a dialogue by removing the fusty nature that a phrase like "It is I" might induce. With that said, though, in formal writing, it is important that the writer follow this rule because it does produce concinnity in the paper, semantically it makes more sense, and grammarians still say it is correct, but formal.

Remember that high school and college English papers are formal bodies of work; ergo they must be stylistically formal. One must also remember that an accusative pronoun needs an action verb for it to be used. A writer cannot use an accusative pronoun as the direct object of a copula because a copula is only linking the subject with the subject predicate. There also must be concinnity in the construction of a "to be" construction with its subordinate clause. For instance:

Example: It is you [who are going to rectify this situation.]

Above, the predicate nominative is "you"; therefore the verb following the interrogatory pronoun "who" in the subordinate clause must correspond with each other; therefore it would appear to be "you are" in this situation. Below is another example so that you can see how this works:

Example: It is she who owns that land.

Now, remember that this will only be easy to spot provided "to be" be conjugated or it have a subject. It can be very difficult to spot during such times when the subject should appear to be nonexistent. For example:

Example: I want [myself] to be him.

Here, "to be" has a subject and that subject is the direct object of the verb to want, but because it's a reflexive pronoun, in this situation, it is normally omitted. The infinitive here is linking the two objective pronouns so they must both be objective. Here are some more examples below:

Example: I pretend to be her.

Example: I pretend that I am she.

Example: It's better that it be they than it be I.

Example: Yesterday, I became he [the leader].

Example: The winner was thought to be I.

Example: He thought me to be him.

Everyone reading this should be aware that this is formal English—English that one would write more so than he would speak. More so, many of these constructions can, indeed, be avoided in a paper and I would strongly urge that a writer avoid these constructions because of their stilted, pedantic constructions, but they do have their place in grammar. It should be stated, though, that a construction such as the example below can bring a connotation of strength and may embolden its audience so this construction can definitely be wise to use in a formal, persuasive paper:

"It is we, the people, who have fought for centuries for freedom. It is we who have offered our souls, our blood, and our brethren to fight against persecution and injustice. It is we who have the power to decide what is right for us and it is we who will never give up until we have what is rightfully ours."

This is a term in linguistics called "anaphora". Winston Churchill was renowned for his use of anaphora in many of his speeches. Anaphora is very powerful in persuasive writing because it causes the reader to focus on its construction. The constant, recurrent use of "It is we" is enough to cause anyone's head to turn.

All right, well that is my in-depth explanation of the predicate nominative. I hope it might have helped you a little in understanding the antiphony of prescribed constructions versus proscribed constructions regarding this topic.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Wife's Lament

The Wife's Lament

The Middle Ages began around A.D. 500 and was a period of time that existed in Europe between Classical Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. It stretched throughout the centuries and historians believe it finally culminated around A.D. 1350, although speculation exists that it may have continued even longer.

Perhaps one of the most esoteric poems of this time is "The Wife's Lament." In this poem, the author is a woman whose husband has gone on a journey to some unknown place and, because he is no longer physically there to be with his wife, his family members have exiled her. From the context of the poem and its prologue, it is evident that the narrator has had an arranged marriage with her husband whom she describes as "her lord." The prologue mentions that the narrator was most likely a "peace-weaver," which, in medieval Anglo-Saxon culture, was a woman who was married off to make peace between warring tribes. This was a very common practice during the Middle Ages so it makes sense that her husband's family would contemn her and thus exile her upon his leaving.

An element of medieval Anglo-Saxon culture is clearly represented in this poem by the antonomastic overtone that the term, "my lord" brings. For example, the narrator states, "First [my lord] went away from his people here," then she later avers that, "[My lord] commanded me to stay in this place." The antonomasia found in these passages clearly connotes what many historians would consider as typical truckling of a medieval wife towards her husband. The antonomastic term, "my lord," also seems to exude a type of servile fealty that a wife would have for her husband during this time in Anglo-Saxon history.

This poem also seems to exude from it a great social conflict between women during the Middle Ages. One cannot help noticing that the narrator in this poem is inferior to her husband in every facet and it is almost as though she were his property more so than his wife. The narrator seems to be almost limned as that of a vassal or a serf from the different descriptions that are given in the poem. This is very consistent with medieval Anglo-Saxon culture because women were considered to have been put on this Earth by God to serve their husbands. Because of this precept that was embedded in the culture of this time, women were brought up to believe in this notion, thus, no matter what, they served their husbands well and accordingly until death did them part.

Furthermore, the reader can also get a sense from the poem that the narrator has married into a warrior cult and her husband has left her for some unknown reason. The narrator mentions in the poem that "her lord" has gone "across the storm-tossed sea." It may be that he has gone to conquer another land or fight in some great war, which, during the Middle Ages, was common practice throughout Anglo-Saxon culture.

The notion that this family that the narrator has married into may be a warrior cult is buttressed by the belief that the narrator is a peace-weaver. If she was a peace-weaver, then she was married to stifle a blood feud between the two exogamous families. Tensions between the narrator's family and "her lord's" family may still be extant, but occluded from sight while she and her lord are married and living together. The problem that exists now is that her lord has gone on this journey to some unknown place thus she is no longer being shielded by his aegis. Without her lord's aegis, she is at the mercy of his family members and therefore their true feelings towards her come out and they ostracize her to this place in the wilderness.

The reader can further picture the ostracism of the narrator when she describes disquietly that, "Endlessly I have suffered the wretchedness of exile" and then segues into how she now resides in an "earth-cave" in the wilderness. The narrator, in these lines, is expounding her coda to the reader. This is, in essence, the end-result she receives for all of her love, devotion, and fidelity she has had for her lord—the fact that she has now been exiled by his family to live out her days in this cave underneath an old oak tree. In medieval Anglo-Saxon culture, it was common practice for a family to blackball one of its estranged members, especially a peace-weaver when the husband had either died or gone somewhere such as off to war wherein it was very likely he would never return.

Furthermore, the connotation of a blood feud in this poem can be limned through the arranged marriage between the narrator and her lord. Since these are two separate warrior cults who are trying to create some semblance of peace between each other, the one cult has offered up a peace-weaver for betrothal to a male heir of the other warrior cult. Arranged marriages and blood feuds between exogamous families, particularly warrior cult families, were rampant throughout Anglo-Saxon culture during the Middle Ages. An arranged marriage was one way to end a blood feud between different families, but, many times, the hatred for the other family was still innate within each member; therefore many of these marriages were doomed from the start. It is apparent from this poem that the narrator's arranged marriage, which was an effort to create a rapprochement between the two warring families, has failed thus irreparably sundering the two families and inexorably reviving old tensions from the blood feud.

In the end, there are many elements of Anglo-Saxon culture and heritage that can be found in "The Wife's Lament." For instance, in the poem, the reader can see how a once doting wife seems to become nothing more than a flitting memory to her husband and his family and how, through all of her pain and persecution, through exile and enmity, the ever-faithful narrator still toadies to her missing husband—"her lord" for whom she forever weeps during her state of exile.

The Hug

The Hug

In every work, the reader looks at it and must infer what the author is trying to say. Usually, the reader incorporates his own political views into the work as a group such as his feelings towards different genders, classes, races, or even sexual preferences. With that being said, it is safe to assume that "The Hug" by Thom Gunn is no different. Gun, a homosexual author, writes in such a way as to capture his audience, but all the while making many feel uneasy as to what he is portraying.

When the narrator says, "It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined/Half of the night with our old friend/Who'd showed us in the end/To a bed I reached in one drunk stride," the reader clearly pictures that the narrator is a man and that the person whom he is throwing a party for is either his wife or girlfriend (1-4). The "old friend" appears to be a male, perhaps someone whom they have known since they were in school. A feminist would impugn this stereotypical way of thinking as an archetypal fancy—a conceit held within the psyche of the average individual based on what roles society places on its sexes. For instance, society's archetype would view that a man should throw a party for his wife or girlfriend and not the other way around. More so, it is the man who should be drunk and not the woman and it would be improper for the old friend to be a woman because of the belief in the roles of fidelity.

From a post-feminist view, these archetypes are ridiculous or outmoded. In modern society, it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to throw a birthday party for the man, it is perfectly acceptable for the woman to get drunk at the party, and it is perfectly acceptable for there to be another girl at her husband's or boyfriend's party. Any other way of thinking, whether it be to assume sex roles for androgynous characters or something else, is not only prejudicial, but it is abasing to women.

From a queer theorists perspective, this archetype is completely flawed. A queer theorist would ask the reader, "Why do these characters have to be mixed genders? They could very easily be all men or all women." In fact, if one were to have insight that the author, Thom Gunn was homosexual during his lifetime, he might think differently as to who these characters are. In this sense, the average reader might become alarmed at the thought that these characters might be two men who have gone to bed with each other or even two women.

When the narrator says, "I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug/Suddenly, from behind/In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed," a feminist reader might want to switch her first thought (7-9). She would argue that the woman is apparently the narrator because the man would be the one to hug suddenly from behind and then push his body up against hers. This would be predicated on the societal archetype that a man is usually the one to make the first move on a woman and that the woman is the one who must acquiesce to his advances in the end.

A post-feminist would be able to see these characters from either a male/female or female/male role. She would argue that women are only preventing social change by falling for this archetypal ideology because women have needs, too. The character who is making the move could just as easily be a woman rather than a man. She could just be trying to give her man a birthday present or she, too, could be drunk and have lost her inhibitions.

A queer theorist, here, would stop the presses. He would say that the feminist and post-feminist are behind the times—that these characters could just as easily be having some homosexual relationship than a heterosexual one. He would elucidate that this is caused by society's strong biases against things it considers to be "out of the norm." Whether he be in the right is another argument entirely, but he would definitely focus on the fact that the average reader might view these characters more ominously if he were told that they are homosexual.

In the end, it is entirely up to the reader as to how he interprets the work he is reading. The main point to remember is that each individual views things differently and that these views are a combination of personal and societal osmoses—in other words, what one knows to be the norm and what one believes, combined, forms his views on a particular work, its characters, and its author.