Friday, March 13, 2009

Whether Grayling know the subjunctive

In making a point about the (in)accuracy of internet sources, A. C. Grayling remarks in passing on the grammar of the following:

Look thy last on all things lovely, Every hour. Let no night Seal thy sense in deathly slumber Till to delight Thou have paid thy utmost blessing.

-Walter de la Mare

Grayling claims that Thou have is an error, and one committed by the poet. It should, he says, be Thou hast. But Alan Larman, of Congleton, Cheshire, UK, writes to NewScientist that this is the subjunctive mood and no error at all.

In modern English, the use of the subjunctive is highly restricted and occurs mainly in subordinate clauses introduced by that (e.g., It's important that he be on time; I take were in if I were you to be an isolated irrealis form and not part of the subjunctive, which uses the plain form of the verb). My problem is this: I don't know enough about the grammar of early modern English (the style, if not the time, in which la Mare was writing) to know whether the subjunctive is possible here. The poet was writing in the early part of the twentieth century, at which time thou had been out of use for perhaps 250 years. So it is indeed possible that, in trying to be poetic, he goofed.

There is, however, a still-used frozen form that displays exactly the pattern in question: until death do us part, which suggests strongly that the error is Grayling's.

If anybody can settle this definitively, I'd appreciate hearing from you.


Nick said...

I'm an English major. It's technically "thou have" (2nd person singular present subjunctive "to have"). Actually it's the present perfect subjunctive of "to be", but that's being picky.

Yes, it's "death do us part" and I believe America the beautiful is "until all success be nobleness". English is a syncretic language so that's how the error has festered for the last hundred years or so.

Here's past subjunctive, "I would love you until death did us part or I were unable to love you anymore." Here, "did" and "were" are past subjunctive forms of their respective verbs; not past indicatives.

Example: I won't let my client speak to you until (or unless) he be given immunity.

Here, "be" is subjunctive. It takes a certain concinnity for one to know how to use the subjunctive in Modern English. For example again:

When he HAVE time, he will do it.
When he HAS time, he will do it.

Technically, "when" is being used as the conjunction "whenever" and must take a subjunctive in an older form of grammar. The sentence means, "whenever he (may) have time, he will do it", but "has" is fine in normative grammar in modern English now.

"If he be running late, he will call."

If that be good enough, I shall now retire to my chores. If you HAVE any questions, check out my blog. It is predicated on grammar.

Nick said...

God rest ye merry gentleman.
Once I were in control of England, I would crush it. (I'm fantasizing. "Once" means "if ever"; here, I am telling a hypothetical story.)

It's best that one not cry over the subjunctive.

It's good (that or if) he know his place in life.

It would not matter whether or not I were running late; he would still have it done. (hypothetical)

I will wait until (such time that) he be close enough to kill.

Nick said...

"If I were you" is subjunctive my friend. It's first person singular simple past subjunctive of "to be", because frankly YOU ARE NOT I! LOL

Nick said...

I can't believe I said it's the present perfect subjunctive of "to be" for "thou have paid"; it's the present perfect subjunctive of "to pay". Sorry!

Brett said...

Hi, Nick

I'm not sure what you mean when you say "It's technically, 'thou have' and again when you talk about the error festering. What error?

Brett said...

Nick, you write, "'If I were you' is subjunctive my friend.

I know that it has historically been analyzed that way, but given that it is an isolated form in modern English--that is, no other word can currently be shown to have the past subjunctive--it's hard to see how it belongs to any system. For this reason, it makes more sense to simply say that it's its own thing.

Nick said...

Compare my article a day or two ago in which I take the Middle English verb "to climb" and compare it to Modern English. The only reason you can't tell that "climbed" is Past Subjunctive "If I climbed the wall, I would have a heart attack," is that the language has coalesced its past indicative and past subjunctive forms. One knows it's subjunctive there because I am not speaking about something that happened in the past like, "I climbed the wall yesterday"; I'm talking about it in a conditional tense. I will say it this way and argue it till death HAVE take my soul!

Brett said...

As I said, I fully recognize that there was a past subjunctive and that it and the non-subjunctive past tense have syncretized, but this is a historical view. The current reality is that there is no good reason to call it the past subjunctive. It's possible for present tense to indicate non-factual information. There's no requirement that it be marked by a subjunctive. The same is true of the past tense. Conversely, tense markings have the primary function of indicating time, but they also have other meanings.

Nick said...

I'll always call it the past subjunctive and If I were teaching it, I would label it that. You can do whatever you want with it, though. Just as it's your choice to teach grammar or whatnow however you think it pertains in your modern belief system. I'm just giving my answer and I don't believe my answer is wrong at all because so many teachers and professors have taught it to me like that. You are the first person (besides one professor) to question it, but that professor taught grammar and she believes "if I were" is subjunctive, "but if I were tired and I climbed" could never be subjunctive. Go figure; it's what she taught.

Brett said...

Indeed, it's merely a terminological issue; I'm not saying you're wrong. But if I might, I would suggest that rather than becoming defensive about these kinds of disagreements, you might look at them as opportunities for investigation. Knowing how various people look at things and why they do so, gives you a distinct advantage. (Of course, I'm not advocating the namby-pamby view that all viewpoints are correct; it's just that in this case, I see no factual errors.)