Saturday, March 14, 2009

The decline of the subjunctive

There's no doubt that the subjunctive in English has lost much of its historical scope. There used to be present and past subjunctive for all verbs, but the only vestige of the past subjunctive is the irrealis use of were that I referred to yesterday. When you've only got one form, it's hardly worth calling it a system. The simple past tense has taken over much of the work in sentences like If you saw it, you'd know.

Many claim that the subjunctive continues its fade today, but there are a brave few, such as Charles Finney of the University of Tennessee, who actually argue that it's making a comeback. I'm very pleased to see that Finney is at least somewhat interested in the data. He keeps a list of examples that he runs across to illustrate his point. The problem is that you can't show a revival by looking at a single point in time.

So to get a time series, I went to the TIME Corpus and the COCA and used that [pronoun] be as my stand-in for the whole of the subjunctive. I'd say it's a reasonably representative sample, though clearly far from perfect. If you're playing along at home, the query would look like this:
The result from the TIME corpus shows a clear drop off over the last century with only the 1930s and 1990s going slightly against trend. The most recent decade has, however, been very hard on the subjunctive:
The drop off in the last two decades is confirmed by the COCA, though it doesn't look quite as desperate:
The thing I found most interesting is that spoken English appears to be the biggest user of the subjunctive, though academic English isn't far behind.
So it appears that the subjunctive really is continuing its decline.


Robb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick said...

And your point Aesop?

Nick said...

Did I say something wrong? I just want to know what the point of this study is. It doesn't make the subjunctive wrong—it just means that our school systems are doing a lousy job teaching English grammar. I learned this in school; was I the only kid paying attention when it was taught? Perhaps the teaching is what is wrong here. Should I ever teach, I shall make sure that I SPEND time teaching this precept as best as I possibly can, whenever and however it BE possible. I really find it to be a shame that your charts show such a decline in its usage. Doesn't anyone have a clue as to why we say it the way we do? Geeze!

Brett said...

1. Don't make claims about language without checking the facts.
2. It's easy enough to check the facts.

Brett said...

Why is it a shame that language changes? At which point in time would you like to fix the language?

Nick said...

Well, because it's not evolving; it's devolving. It syntactically makes no sense and especially semantically can be confusing. It is in an entropic state. I just think they should spend time teaching it so that this problem not continue to fester, but might actually heal a little. I used to tutor the English subjunctive in high school to middle school students as part of my community service hours to graduate. I did this because I was aiding them in their foreign language studies by comparing it to English and it was amazing how lost they were because they hadn't been taught. In high school, every teacher knew what it was, but all of them except one tried to avoid it as if it were a pariah.

Nick said...

I'm not trying to sound sarcastic, Brett; it's just that I'm tired of being told I am wrong by my professors and teachers when I am the one who is right. I've had the grades on my papers lowered because of what they have called grammatical errors only for them to have to change it after they they've been informed that I was using the subjunctive. Some have stared at me askance and then changed the grade.

Brett said...

Again, I ask, at what point would you wish to fix the language so that it didn't change? When was it in an ideal state? What does it mean to say that a language is devolving?

Nick said...

I say just teach it. If they taught it, it wouldn't be so confusing. Listen, Brett, I'm not trying to be forward or anything. It's just so sad. My high school French teacher once said that there is no language in the world that is more abused than English. It's abused by the people who speak it and the teachers who teach it. With that said, it's important to know that I'm not professing some type of perfect grammar system—I merely want people to understand the right way so that they can write it correctly in their papers.

The point to fix it is to teach it in grade school and what I mean by its devolving is that its complexity is being attacked.

For instance, "If I were there" and "If I was there" mean two totally different things, semantically. The former is a hypothetical condition and the second is something in the past, but having one dumbs down the language.

"You shall" and "You will" is another point. The former is more of a command use while the latter is a prediction. One form means the person must know by context, which is fine, but it's not complex. The English declension has taken a big hit over the centuries. That is devolution.

Nick said...

Just because there is a "that" followed by a pronoun doesn't mean that it is automatically subjunctive. It all depends. Furthermore, you need to look at all verbs, but that can be hard to do. Most of the time, you cannot tell that it is in the subjunctive anyway. I'm not going to beat this to death, but I know I say it correctly 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent, I know I'm saying it incorrectly, but it would be ridiculous to say all of the time.

Brett said...

My question was not at which point in a person's life do we correct their English problems, but rather at which point in the history of English do we say that the English used at that time is the "correct" English that should be preserved for ever and always?

You seem to be arguing for some sort of strange mixture of middle English subjunctive syntax and modern English subjunctive morphology. Well, what is it?

Shall we all go around saying, "The knyt told him howe his wife hadde don in his absence"?

Brett said...

@ Nick, "Just because there is a "that" followed by a pronoun doesn't mean that it is automatically subjunctive."

Of course not, but every case of that followed by a pronoun and then be is.

@ Nick, "Furthermore, you need to look at all verbs."

As I said, I merely used this search as a representative sample. I make not claim that it constitutes the entire universe of possible subjunctive verb phrases in English, but I do expect that if the use of that he be is declining, we can surmise that the use of the subjunctive is generally declining at a similar rate. Remember, this is a blog, not a funded research agency. Any data you have, contrary or supporting, is welcome.

Nick said...

No, I'm just saying that it isn't dead. I remember being taught it, I know it obviously you can tell, but I'm saying it doesn't jive. For instance, take the example:

"They will tell you tomorrow so that there be no confusion."

Okay "so that there be"; make it "there is", okay, now make it past:

"They would tell you tomorrow so that there WOULD be no confusion."

There is now "was". I can't figure that out. What would your grammar rule be to explain that? I'm not stating that my belief in the subjunctive is correct; I'm saying it's the prescriptive way. It's just the same as any professor will tell you that you need to use "who/whom" correctly in a paper, but not in real life.

Brett said...

@ Nick, "I'm not stating that my belief in the subjunctive is correct"

But you are Nick. In fact, you've said it a number of times. Go back and read all your comments again. You make unsubstantiated assertions about other people's language making no sense and sowing confusion. You repeat the foolish claims of ignorant pedants who feel no need to supply any evidence to back up their arrogant prescriptions and proscritions being happy simply to show their disdain for others.

"My high school French teacher once said that there is no language in the world that is more abused than English."

Your French teacher obviously said some pompously foolish things. There are languages dying around the world regularly. English is flourishing. Which is abused?

Nick, I sincerely don't mean to be condescending. You seem like a bright guy. So, either build yourself a coherent argument to support your position or find a better supported position. I think you'll find the second option the more fruitful.

Nick said...

I still say that mine is correct, but not used. I take it you don't teach the subjunctive to your students. It's not as if you were first person ever to say that. My French teacher, well, she was classical. She couldn't figure out why she couldn't get her tenet across to us.

One day, it was 3rd block I believe, and I walked into her classroom and she was writing some questions in English on the board. She had put "who" instead of "whom" and I remember saying to myself, "Boy, she's always complaining that we don't speak the King's English and here she is writing who when it should be whom."

Well, she turned to the class and asked, "what is grammatically wrong with these questions?" No one raised his hand; I looked around for a minute and then raised my hand "it should be whom".

She was ecstatic because I had been the first student all day to get it right. I remember Jeremy K. turned around and said with disdain in his voice, "nobody says whom", and I said, "it's a word", and he scoffed at me and turned back around.

She then went into a dither saying, "How can I teach this to you in French when you don't know it in English". I think I get it in English. I have tutored it in English. I am not being holier-than-thou as she was; I'm basically stating that If I were a teacher, I would spend time on this subject because it is important that it be taught, because if it were not taught, that would reflect poorly on me. I understand that there is a decline in it; I believe also that it is coming back into vogue. Whatever the case may be, be it alive and well or be it moribund, I'll always adhere to it. I've grown up with it. It's what I know.

Brett said...

Nick, I'm certainly not telling you NOT to use the subjunctive. I'm merely observing that it is used less now than it was before. (And I'd be curious to learn what evidence you have that it's coming back into vogue.)

There's too much scoffing about language use, too much derision, too much scorn, too many markings of class and dialect and generations. We've got enough to fight about in the world without using language as another badge of shame.

If we all dressed the same, liked the same stuff, cooked the same food, or played exactly the same music, it would be a pitifully boring world. There are many different ways to say thing. Let's embrace them, revel in them, even, as Mr. Verb would say.

Anonymous said...

"Well, because it's not evolving; it's devolving...For instance, "If I were there" and "If I was there" mean two totally different things, semantically. The former is a hypothetical condition and the second is something in the past, but having one dumbs down the language."

If not being able to differentiate the hypothetical and factual conditionals is a sign of a primitive language, then English has been a dumbed down, devolved language for a few centuries now. First, the separation of 'was' and 'were' works in the singular only (there's obviously only one form for "if we/you/they were"), and second, no other verb has a distinguishable hypothetical form. So of all the verbs in the English language, only half a verb (the singular of 'to be') still differentiates the hypothetical and factual conditionals. The hypothetical form of the entire sentence is, however, clearly marked by 'would' or other modal verbs. English is an analytical language, and as an analytical language it rarely has meaningful words or even meaningful phrases: English sentences should be parsed - and understood - as a whole. And as a whole, the "if - then would" construction makes a perfectly fine hypothetical conditional. The English language evolves, even if it evolves more along the lines of Chinese, continuing to shed old declensions and conjugations. I, for one, wouldn't complain if one day English would lose the fairly useless words "am", "are", "is", "was" and "were" and replace them all with "be".