Various Art Forms:

The Subjunctive Mood – July 2, 2023

Word pile

One of the reasons I love the English language is its use—at least for those of us old enough to have been taught proper grammar—of the subjunctive mood. Subjunctive is a step back from reality. It’s a way of speaking about things that are not cold, hard facts but possibilities, potentials, or doubtful conditions. It’s the world of maybe and of if-then clauses.

When I say “I can go to the store,” I am stating a definite capability. The store exists, I exist, and my ability to move from here—wherever “here” might be—to there is a demonstrated fact. I am also signaling my willingness to go. But if I say, “I could go to the store,” we are in a whole ’nother reality. Then my ability to go to the store is contingent upon some yet-to-be revealed conditional clause. Maybe I am prevented from going by a prior commitment. Maybe the way is blocked. Maybe I don’t want to go in the first place. The situation is doubtful. If … and perhaps then.

This is a world we all inhabit. That is, we adult humans inhabit it but, generally, young children, babies, and dogs do not. For them, the world is concrete. A child wants his candy or a particular toy now, with no irritating prior conditions. The dog wants a walk or a treat without any doubtful circumstances. Acceptance of conditionals is a point of view that comes with age and, generally, with the experience of repeated disappointment.

The subjunctive is one of three grammatical moods in English—and in several other Indo-European-based languages as well. The other moods are the indicative, heard in that initial “I can go to the store” or “I am walking,” and the imperative, heard in “Go to the store!” or “Walk!”

Use of the subjunctive has fallen into disregard these days. Students are no longer taught formal grammar or even the basics of alphabet and sounds, called “phonics.” Instead, starting sometime in the 1980s with a burst of pedagogical inspiration, they are taught to read by something called “whole language.” I have never learned exactly what “whole language” entails, but I gather that it involves looking at words in the context of the current sentence and paragraph, recognizing word shapes from the letter forms, and intuiting their meaning from surrounding words. This would be opposed to the “A, ah, apple,” “B, buh, ball,” “C, kuh, cat” approach, which most of us Boomers learned in grammar school, sounding out the words, followed by learning and memorizing their meanings, and then passing spelling tests.1

One point of confusion is that the subjunctive uses recognizable verb forms in what looks like an ungrammatical way. For example, “I suggest you be quiet” looks odd, with the “be” harkening back to an antique, countrified English, like “Argh! We be pirates!” Or people want to add “to” and make it an infinitive: “I suggest you to be quiet.” Or for another example, “If he go to the store …” rather than “goes,” which would be the indicative present, sounds like an error in matching subject and verb in number (“go” in the indicative works with the plural “they,” not the singular “he”). Ultimately, most people just give up and use the familiar indicative, living forever in the concrete present.

Or, in the latter example, they might add an unnecessary “helping verb” like should, would, or might to make it conditional, as in “If he should go to the store …” This preserves the sense of tentative intention, the subjunctive mood, but is excess verbiage for those who know their grammar.

The subjunctive being in the realm of possibility and probability reminds me of quantum mechanics. There, every event is only in the realm of possibility or probability until it is actually observed. A subatomic particle has no particular place or trajectory, no spin state or charge, until you bounce another particle off it or apply some other detection system to observe what is really going on. And for many observations, like position and trajectory, the act of observing itself changes the subsequent state. So most of the statements in quantum mechanics, if rendered into English instead of mathematics, would be in the subjunctive mood.

Quantum mechanics renders this element of probability as a “wave function.” Mathematically, this is a way of saying that a specific property of a particle is either one thing or another, based on the probabilities of each instance occurring, and held in suspension until an observation assigns the actual property, and the wave function collapses into one state or the other. It’s called a “wave function” because it originally applied to the phase, direction, and amplitude of the wave motions exhibited by a vibrating, moving particle, based on its energy. But the mathematical wave function can apply to other unobserved states, like charge and spin. In the thought experiment involving Schrödinger’s cat, the cat’s experience of being either alive or dead inside the box would be expressed as a wave function based on the half-life of the atomic nucleus triggering the release of the poison. And the wave function collapses into one state or the other when the box is opened and the cat is observed.

In the world of the very small, the quantum world, a language that encompasses hypotheticals is necessary because our knowledge of what’s going on is dependent on interruptive observations. In the world of the everyday, we can trust that the things we observe by perceiving, say, sunlight bouncing off their surfaces does not change their nature or position. But in the world of the very large, such as astronomical observations of distant stars and galaxies, we are back to hypotheticals. The stars beyond our local neighborhood are shown to us only in light waves (and now in gravity waves, too) that may have been propagated some hundreds or thousands of years ago—or millions and billions in the case of distant galaxies. This ancient light is a look back in time. And when it finally reaches Earth and our telescopes and eyes, it may no longer represent a true occurrence. We can only speak probabilistically about what might be occurring now at great distances.2 So the stars we see in the night sky live in the subjunctive mood until they one day visibly flicker and die.

The subjunctive mood should actually be the preferred language of science: hypothetical and probabilistic until proven by experiment.

1. “Whole language” reminds me of the scene in The Music Man where Professor Harold Hill urges his beginning band students to “think Brahms.”

2. Einstein would say that, given the distortions that gravity places on space and time, it is meaningless to talk of “now” in any universal sense.