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Usage Of Subjunctive Notes

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Olivia Alter

MT3 Dr Temple

'There has been considerable debate, but often very little agreement amongst linguists regarding how best to account for the usage of the subjunctive.' (AyresBennett et al 2001: 192). Why should this be?

The subjunctive is considered a personal mood, a particular morphological form of the verb that has a modal function, which varies with person and tense (unlike the impersonal mood, the infinitive), and contrasts with the indicative, conditional, and imperative (although in the third person this is indicated by the subjunctive), to express a meaning that goes against the declarative value of a sentence. Moods not only oppose types of sentences, but oppose statements that are seen as 'true' by the speaker (these are generally in the indicative, which is deemed the neutral mood); they are a means of marking a concern with the status of a proposition. The debate amongst linguists regarding the usage of the subjunctive tends to revolve around the argument that in Modern French usage is declining, in the sense of the subjunctive no longer fulfilling a meaningful modal function, and instead it is becoming a mere syntactic formality. In Old French (which developed from the same ideas in Latin), the subjunctive originally showed the speaker's attitude towards an event based on their emotions (doubt, disbelief, pleasure, etc.), but as the language evolved, especially due to the production of prescriptive grammars, the usage of the subjunctive narrowed. Of the four 'tenses' of the subjunctive, it is really only the present subjunctive, and occasionally the perfect, that are in everyday use; the imperfect and pluperfect are confined to literature and speech of a very high register. Most usages still express some sort of modality (volition, obligation, speculation, emotion, etc.), yet they seem to be found increasingly in subordinate clauses, fixed as the form used after certain verbs and conjunctions (the most common being 'que', though this by no means that every verb which follows 'que' is a subjunctive). Despite modern day grammars often going so far as to demonstrate how to avoid usage, whether the subjunctive is replaced with the indicative or other means of expressing modality such as modal auxiliaries ('pouvoir, devoir, savoir') or lexical items such as 'peut-être', exceptions to the pedagogical rules, such as the indicative-subjunctive alternation in the same linguistic environment, would suggest that the mood is neither meaningless nor redundant.

Olivia Alter

MT3 Dr Temple

All linguistic studies concerned with the issue of whether the subjunctive continues to have a meaningful value as a mood or not mention these specific areas of exceptional use, constructions allowing a choice between indicative and subjunctive, as well as fixed expressions where the subjunctive is obligatory. They approach the question in a variety of ways, and the debate mostly depends on the overall framework adopted for explaining the usage, whether an account is focused on sentence- or signoriented, semantic or formal approaches. Some linguists claim that the subjunctive has an 'inherent variability'1, although whether this can serve as an explanation for the usage of the subjunctive is questionable; others have attempted to explain the usage by finding a particular feature which can justify all possible behaviour, but have concluded that it is an 'empty' mood; and others have attempted to find one common invariant meaning which can account for all usages (based on the Saussurean notion of linguistic signs) to express the idea that the subjunctive is a mood2. Whilst there is much more debate than agreement amongst linguists, one thing that can be certain about the usage of the subjunctive is that it cannot be reduced to a list of rules, as traditional grammars tried to do. In many cases precise guidance can be given, but there are various circumstances in which choice plays a role, and often this choice is a meaningful one, where each mood has a distinctive (although not always easily definable) value; sometimes the distinction is one of stylistics, such as in the speech of the highly educated, and certain fixed expressions which have simply been left over from Old French. However, the fundamental question leading to debate over approaches is whether the subjunctive has a meaning value or not, whether it can still be considered a mood, a question to which a response may only ever be postulated but which cannot be fully resolved. Traditionalist studies rely on an approach whereby the subjunctive is generally thought of as subordinate, and therefore governed by the main clause. They list the linguistic environments that supposedly regulate the use of a particular mood, classifying the contexts semantically, or modally, such as those expressing emotions (which can then be classified further into feelings of happiness, anger, fear, etc.), and essentially imply that whilst the indicative discerns a proposition as 'certain' or 'real', the subjunctive is employed to express that which is doubtful or unreal. Nevertheless, functions attributed 1 2

Poplack, S. (1992) Dreer, I. (2007)

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