Getting verbs right part 1

rogersgeorge on January 15th, 2012

Back when I was actively studying Greek, I kept a Greek verb conjugation under a piece of plate glass on my desk. The sheet was about the size of half a sheet of newspaper, the print was small, and it was filled with the forms a Greek verb could take. Greek verbs have tenses, voices, and moods that English verbs don’t have, not to mention several ways of making those forms from different roots. And don’t get me started on accents! We can say pretty much anything in English that an ancient Greek could say, but for some forms we have to use circumlocutions (a phrase instead of a single word) and we don’t count those as verb forms in English. (Want an example? They have a mood called the optative. It expresses a wish. We translate a verb in the optative of, say, “to sit,”  with something like “would that I were sitting.” )

A microscopic part of Greek verb forms

English still has plenty of subtleties to confuse the careless and unwary. Here is one:

Subjunctive mood. You use the subjunctive when you talk about something contrary to reality. Here’s a correct headline from Scientific American recently:

What if There Were no Gravity?

(I could quibble and say they shouldn’t use a “there is” or “there are” construction, but that’s a topic for another time.) Does gravity exist? Yes. Therefore the condition of no gravity is contrary to reality, so they used the subjunctive form of the verb.

You would be incorrect to say “What if there was no gravity.” Ahem, notice that I used “would be” rather than “will be.” I’m suggesting that in real life you always get it right.

Here’s a rule of thumb: You’ll usually use the subjunctive when you see “if” in the sentence. Most verbs in English don’t have a separate form for the subjunctive, so we tend to forget about it. But the verb “to be” does, and we use it when we want to have a subjunctive form. So watch out when you use that verb.

Remember the drinking song, which has it correct: “I wish I were single again, again, I wish I were single again. If I were single, my pockets would jingle, I wish I were single again. “

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed