Choose your words carefully to build credibility, sound intelligent, and make your message understood. When you do, you can be repeated frequently from boardroom to convention hall. When you want to deliver a dynamic and persuasive or be taken seriously by your senior management perfect what you say and how you say it. Here is great career-building advice from Eleanor Dugan who is Patricia Fripp’s Grammar Granny.
When the famous diet doctor was shot by the head mistress, she insisted it was an accident: “The only thing we ever argued about was the use of the subjunctive.” Apparently, discussions of grammar can be dangerous!
Of course, if you are willing to risk shot and shell, few linguistic eccentricities are more fun to quibble over than the subjunctive in English. The subjunctive is one of many verb tenses, ways of specifying the time something happens, the duration, whether it is completed, and who is doing it (I, you, he/she, we, they, it).
Most of the languages spoken between India and Iceland today descend from an original ancestor. This mother tongue (literally) had lots of tenses including special ones for wishing and for something impossible. English has combined these two special qualities into a single verb tense given the fancy name “subjunctive,” from the Latin word for joining. That’s because the subjunctive is usually used in a clause before and joined to the actual sentence.
What’s impossible? What haven’t you achieved yet? The subjunctive knows…
If I were king (title of novel and stage play)…I would make you a queen.
If I were a rich man (song title)…I could buy a private jet.
If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy (song lyric)…we wouldn’t have mothers-in-law.
Note that the sentences that following these opening clauses use would and could, big clues to the fact that indeed you are neither a king (impossible) nor rich (a wish not yet achieved).
Every verb has a subjunctive form, but happily, you can ignore nearly all of them. Their subjunctives are exactly the same as their regular past or present tenses.
Some correct uses of the subjunctive just “sound right” and are used every day.
God bless America! (hope for future)
God blesses America. (statement of belief)
The court ruled that he decide. (deciding will happen after ruling)
The court ruled that he decides. (deciding happened before ruling)
Some can easily be modified to more casual speech:
The boss insisted that he go. (plan for future)
The boss insisted that he goes. (informal)
I suggest that she think about it. (hope for future)
I suggest that she thinks about it. (informal)
Quick trick: The one verb where the subjunctive becomes an elegant tool is to be. The simple rule is that “were” is used for all impossible actions happening now, but you only notice this when it replaces am, are, and is:
If I were… If I am…
If you were… If you are…
If he/she were… If he/she is…
If we were… If we were…
If they were… If they were…
If I were responsible for that damage, I’d pay. (But I’m not!)
If I was responsible for that damage, I will pay. (Show me evidence, and I’ll pay.)
Were she qualified, she’d get the job. (But she probably isn’t.)
If she is qualified, she gets the job. (Welcome to the company.)
Some experts contend that the subjunctive is now obsolete in English, yet we should cling to it for its elegance and to win bar bets. Without it, we wouldn’t have one of the most perfect verses in the English language, written by A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh:
If I were John
And John were me,
Then he’d be six
And I’d be three.
If John were me,
And I were John,
I wouldn’t have these trousers on.
©Eleanor Dugan, 2011, firstname.lastname@example.org
Patricia Fripp helps sales teams use the power of their words to deliver powerful, professional, persuasive sales presentations. Here you can see Fripp in action https://fripp.com/onepage/videobrochure.html