Executive summary. The English grammatical moods—indicative, imperative, subjunctive—were not understood till the nineteenth century, according to an 1882 doctoral dissertation, On the Use of the Subjunctive Mood in Anglo-Saxon. Considering illustrative passages that happen to be from Plato, Alfred Douglas, Evelyn Waugh, and especially John Donne; looking ultimately at John McWhorter’s 2015 essay, “English is not normal”; I review the subjunctive mood, grammar in general, and my own lack of understanding till I was in college.

Copyright page and table of contents, side by side, of Concise Oxford Dictionary

I didn’t get grammar at school. I got taught it, but I didn’t understand it.

This is strange to me now, since I had always got mathematics. I was of an age and a nationality to be taught “new math.” When this educational doctrine is recalled today, it is ridiculed, and perhaps rightly so. Nonetheless, it may have been the right way to teach me, who became a mathematician.

I became a logician to boot, and I could not understand grammar until I could see it as logic. My teachers of grammar were English teachers, not mathematics teachers; and yet, as a study of abstract structure, grammar is closer to mathematics than to literature. As an attempt to work out rules for correct verbal expression (by our own standards), grammar is a form of logic.

Correctness is only one form of goodness. For those whose native tongue is English, the purpose of English class is to study other kinds of goodness of verbal expression. As I pointed out in an early essay on this blog, Strunk and White wrote The Elements of Style, not “The Elements of Grammar.” Unpleasantness results if this is forgotten.

At St Albans School for Boys, tenth grade was the last year we students would study grammar, and our teacher was happy to announce this to us. That fall, Ronald Reagan was elected President for the first time. The main focus of our English course would be an historical review of English literature, starting with Beowulf, then continuing with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer. We read Chaucer in the original and memorized the first eighteen lines of the Prologue, after listening to recordings that our teacher had brought from Oxford. His interest was literature, and he taught us grammar because he had to. We were his first students after college.

He tried to explain the concept of a verbal noun. It functioned as a noun, but still had the feeling of a verb about it. I didn’t like this explanation. The classification of words should be precise, I thought. If a word was a verbal noun, then it was a noun, period.

Mr Kildahl couldn’t argue with that. However, now I can argue with that. Verbal nouns retain formal features of verbs, such as

  • being modified by adverbs rather than adjectives,

  • taking objects,

  • having a voice (active or passive).

As an infinitive, “to go” is a verbal noun, modified by an adverb (“boldly”) in the old Star Trek motto, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The clause “where no man has gone before” may be called adverbial as well; however, alternatively, it is adjectival, modifying the unstated destination of the starship Enterprise; the destination would be expressed by a noun or noun phrase (such as “space, the final frontier”) if at all.

Cover of the Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne

The infinitive of a transitive verb can take an object, as in the opening stanza of John Donne’s poem “The Undertaking”:

I have done one braver thing
⁠Than all the Worthies did,
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
⁠Which is, to keep that hid.

In modernized form, the whole poem is at Wikisource, but I follow the spelling and punctuation of The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (New York: The Modern Library, 1952), which is as in the 1912 edition (available from the Internet Archive) of Grierson, who remarks of a previous edition,

by modernizing the punctuation, while preserving no record of the changes made, the editor had corrupted some passages in such a manner as to make it impossible for a student, unprovided with all the old editions, to recover the original and sometimes quite correct reading …

In the quoted passage of Donne, “to keep that hid” is a noun phrase in which the phrase “that hid” is the direct object of the infinitive “to keep.” Alternatively, or more precisely, “that” is the direct object, and “hid” is the objective complement, in the terminology of Homer C. House and Susan Emolyn Harman, Descriptive English Grammar, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1950). The point is that ordinary nouns have no such appurtenances; verbal nouns may.

Cover of House and Harman, Descriptive English Grammar

I did not become equipped to offer such analyses until I took the freshman language tutorial at St John’s College in Annapolis with Chaninah Maschler. After drafting the present essay, I encountered a tweeted invitation:

Men: Name a female role model that isn't related to you and isn't Marie Curie challenge.

— Sarah Ní Riain (@froodie) March 8, 2020

I answered with the example of Mrs Maschler. With her we learned, along with much else, that Greek had an optative mood, in addition to the subjunctive, imperative, and indicative moods.

From studying Latin in the tenth grade, I must have known about the subjunctive mood. I had heard of the subjunctive in ninth-grade English. Our teacher would point it out in passages that we read in class. We did not read Donne with Mr Willis, but again I’ll use Donne for an example, this time from the “Song” whose first verse is “Goe, and catche a falling starre.” The third and final stanza alludes to “a woman true, and faire”:

If thou findst one, let mee know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
Though at next doore we might meet,
Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet shee,
Will bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

If we had read this in class, our teacher might have asked, “What is the mood of ‘were’ and ‘last’?” A classmate would say, “The subjunctive,” and I wouldn’t know what he was talking about.

I think I know now.

In the quoted stanza, the simple verbs are, in order: “findst, let, were, doe, would, might, were, met, last, write, will,” and “come.”

The verbs “were” (in either instance) and “last” are subjunctive (past and present, respectively), by form. You can tell they are subjunctives, just because the corresponding indicative forms would be “was” and “lasts.”

The verbs “let” and “doe” (our “do”) are imperative, because they lack subjects. I had always been taught in school that the subject of an imperative was “you implied,” and in Donne’s case it would be “thou implied.” But I accepted Mrs Maschler’s assertion that the “you” (or “thou”), if expressed, was an appositive, not a subject.

I don’t recall if our tutor had a detailed argument. I could make an argument now, observing that, in Greek, while subjects of verbs take the nominative case, the name of a person addressed by an imperative verb takes the vocative case. Thus in Plato’s Gorgias (which I wrote about recently), at 462b, Polus commands:

So answer me this, Socrates (καί μοι ἀπόκριναι, ὦ Σώκρατες): since you think that Gorgias is at a loss about rhetoric, what is your own account of it?

Here ἀπόκριναι is apparently an infinitive (“to answer”), used as an imperative; and ὦ Σώκρατες is vocative (the nominative would be Σώκρατης; plus there’s that ὦ, making the form of address “O Socrates”).

To return to Donne: We have seen that his verbs “were” and “last” are subjunctive, while “let” and “do” are imperative. The remainder are indicative, or cannot be distinguished from indicatives. However, context suggests that “findst” is subjunctive. Consider for example the second stanza of the same poem:

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And sweare,
No where
Lives a woman true, and faire.

Here “beest” takes the position that “findst” does in the third stanza; and it seems “beest” must be subjunctive, since the indicative form would be “art,” as in the seventh line of another Donne poem, “The Apparition”:

When by thy scorn, O murdresse, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from mee,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, fain’d vestall, in worse armes shall see;
Then thy sicke taper will begin to winke,
And he, whose thou art then, being tyr’d before,
Will, if thou stirre, or pinch to wake him, thinke
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleepe will from thee shrinke,
And then poor Aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lye,
A veryer ghost than I;
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee’; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent.

If “thou art” has an indicative verb, then what can “If thou beest” have, if not a subjunctive? And then why should not “If thou findst” also have a subjunctive verb?

Yet again, in the eighth line of “The Apparition,” the verbs of “if thou stirre, or pinch” must be in the subjunctive mood, since they lack the “-st” of indicative forms, as in “Thou call’st” on the ninth line.

Why then would Donne put “-st” on subjunctives in “Song”? The question may be founded on misconception. We have to ask first: Would Donne have recognized subjunctive and indicative moods in the first place?

Copyright page and table of contents of Concise Oxford Dictionary

Two sources describe the indicative and subjunctive forms, but disagree implicitly over whether the second person singular subjunctive takes “-(e)st.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Sixth Edition (1976), tells us in its Introduction, in the section on Inflexion:

iv. Third person singular present indicative of verbs

Sibilant wds (-e wds dropping the e) and -o wds add -es …; -y wds change -y into -ies …; other verbs add -s

vii. Archaic second and third person singular of verbs

These are formed in -(e)st for the second person singular present and past … and -(e)th for the third person singular present indicative …

If “-(e)s” and “-(e)th” are explicitly for indicatives, but “-(e)st” is not, then it must be for subjunctives too. The exception proves the rule. Thus in Proverbs 16:18,

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,

“goeth” is definitely indicative, while Donne’s “findst” is not specifically indicative, but may be subjunctive.

However, the COD may be in error, by its own standards, if these are shared by House and Harman in the cited grammar (of which I bought my copy used somewhere, possibly after Mrs Maschler mentioned the grammar as having been brought to her attention by another student, and as being good; or perhaps I already had my copy then). In their chapter on the grammatical form of verbs, Harman and House give a synopsis of the forms of “give” in the three moods. While only the first person singular forms are given, a note explains how, for the third person singular present indicative, “The suffix -s (or -es) is added to the first person form.” There is no such note for the subjunctive. There is also no mention of the archaic form “-(e)th” for the indicative; but in an earlier table of the forms of “be,” the second person singular subjunctive is given as being either “If you be” or “If thou be” in the present; “If you were” or “If thou wert” in the past. Thus we can expect the synopsis of “give” to account for its use with “thou.” If the exception to the rule for indicatives proves the generality of the rule for subjunctives, then for Harman and House this rule is that, for verbs like “give,” there is no variation for person or number. Therefore “givest” and likewise “findst” must be indicative.

Again though, we have seen reason to think that Donne’s “beest” is subjunctive. In this case, the rule of the COD is right; of House and Harman, wrong—if indeed there is a rule at all.

Of the remaining verbs in the last stanza of Donne’s “Song,” “might” could be a subjunctive, except that, being a so-called preterite-present verb, “may/might” does not add “-(e)s” or “-(e)th” to form the third-person singular present indicative, and so this indicative cannot be distinguished from a subjunctive.

I don’t recall how I first learned about the preterite-presents as such. It seems they were originally “strong” verbs, in the sense of showing only a vowel change in their past forms, as in “sing/sang.” Then their past forms came to be used as presents, and new “weak” past forms in “-d” or “-t” were created.

The preterite-presents are usually auxiliary verbs, like “can/could, shall/should, may/might.” The process of formation can happen a second time: it did to “ought” and “must,” which in origin are the past forms of verbs (namely “owe” and “mote”) that are already preterite-present; now they have no new past forms of their own.

Though perhaps not really an auxiliary verb, “dare” is a preterite-present, and a sign of this is that the third-person singular need not take “-s,” as indeed it does not in the last line of “Two Loves” of Alfred Douglas:

… I cried, ‘Sweet youth,
Tell me why, sad and sighing, thou dost rove
These pleasant realms? I pray thee speak me sooth
What is thy name?’ He said, ‘My name is Love.’
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.’
Then sighing, said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name.’

Cover of the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse

If the second of Douglas’s youths is the Love that dare not speak its name, perhaps the first is the Love that need not speak its name. We don’t, or we need not, say “needs not.” The auxiliary verb “need” is not actually a preterite-present, but still we may drop the third-person singular ending “-s,” by analogy with the preterite-present auxiliaries. I have learned this last fact by perusing an old book, Alphonso Smith, An Old English Grammar and Exercise Book, New Edition (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1896). I don’t know why I possess this book. Probably I bought it used somewhere, like the grammar of House and Harman, while in college. However, the book might have been on my parents’ shelves, though it is inscribed with an unknown name: “Nell C. Ryland ’17.” One can download the book today from the Internet Archive; I’m looking at page 25.

Spine and back of Smith, Old English Grammar

Page 71 of Smith’s book explains the use of the subjunctive mood with a reference to Gerold Hotz, On the Use of the Subjunctive Mood in Anglo-Saxon (Zürich, 1882), which also is on the Internet Archive. Hotz’s is a fascinating work, though full of abbreviations (e.g. “f. i.” for “for instance”). Written in Switzerland, it’s in English, albeit a flowery English that refers to the Germanic tongues as the “septentrional languages.” On page 89 is a passage that Smith quotes that both uses the subjunctive and tells one way that King Alfred used it:

Whether the statement refer to a fact or not, whether the subject-matter be vouched for by the reporter, as regards its objective reality and truth, the subjunctive does not tell. It simply represents a statement as reported.

Fascinating to me is that, at least according to Hotz, the English subjunctive mood did not start to be properly understood as such until the nineteenth century. He says on page 1:

THE integrity of the English verb has been so much affected by that corruption of English grammar which began in the eleventh century and is accomplished in Shakespeare, that the subjunctive mood is distinguishable in modern English but in a few forms of the verb. The so-called modal verbs shall, will, may gradually lost their presentive meaning, and, to supply the want of a clearly distinguished subjunctive mood, assumed a purely symbolic function, in which they appear just where once the true subjunctive lived its most vigorous and intimate life.

It is therefore not very astounding, that the English grammarians of past centuries either ignored its existence as a mood, or misconceived it. When, on the other hand, the revival of English literature led to the study of Old English history and Anglo-Saxon was brought within reach of the learned, that old tongue was looked upon through Latin grammar; and we must go as far as The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Grammar by Bosworth, to find Anglo-Saxon grammar in its true genius and structure, freed from Latin incumbrances.

By Hotz’s account, Donne’s friend Ben Jonson would have said that in one of Donne’s couplets, namely

Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,

the verbs “were” and “last” are plural, just as “live” can be plural, even with a formally singular subject, as in “It’s where my family live.” Sebastian Flyte says this in Waugh’s novel as he dismisses the grandeur of Brideshead Castle:

We drove on and in the early afternoon came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened before us. We were at the head of a valley and below us, half a mile distant, prone in the sunlight, grey and gold amid a screen of boskage, shone the dome and columns of an old house.

“Well?” said Sebastian, stopping the car. Beyond the dome lay receding steps of water and round it, guarding and hiding it, stood the soft hills.


“What a place to live in!” I said.

“You must see the garden front and the fountain.” He leaned forward and put the car into gear. “It’s where my family live.” And even then, rapt in the vision, I felt, momentarily, like a wind stirring the tapestry, an ominous chill at the words he used—not “That is my home,” but “It’s where my family live.”

“Don’t worry,” he continued, “they’re all away. You won’t have to meet them.”

We know that Greek has four moods, because we can distinguish all of the forms. Perhaps the moods existed in the original Indo-European; but in the evolution of Latin and English, the uses of the optative were taken up by the subjunctive. There may thus be an historical reason for calling the English subjunctive by the same name (namely “subjunctive”) as the Latin subjunctive. Each may descend from the same feature of Indo-European.

There is no reason to expect the uses of the mood in the two languages to correspond closely. By the account of John McWhorter in a 2015 Aeon essay, “English is not normal,” the language is the result of attempts at communication between new couples from different countries, after a sort of re-enactment of one version of the founding of Rome:

… yet more Germanic-speakers came across the sea meaning business. This wave began in the ninth century, and this time the invaders were speaking another Germanic offshoot, Old Norse. But they didn’t impose their language. Instead, they married local women and switched to English. However, they were adults and, as a rule, adults don’t pick up new languages easily, especially not in oral societies. There was no such thing as school, and no media. Learning a new language meant listening hard and trying your best …

Anonymous French painter, The Rape of the Sabine Women, c. 1770, oil on paper on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington

As long as the invaders got their meaning across, that was fine. But you can do that with a highly approximate rendition of a language … So the Scandinavians did pretty much what we would expect: they spoke bad Old English. Their kids heard as much of that as they did real Old English. Life went on, and pretty soon their bad Old English was real English, and here we are today: the Scandies made English easier.

Bad Old English became real English, and here we are.

Edited May 7, 2020

One Trackback

  1. By Donne’s Undertaking « Polytropy on April 10, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    […] « Mood […]

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