Correct Use of the Subjunctive

rogersgeorge on December 24th, 2017

We use the subjunctive when we want to express something contrary to reality. (Greek has a mood called the optative, which is a step farther back than the subjunctive; it expresses a wish. In English we would say something like “would that I were dead”—but I digress.) Okay, this being contrary to reality poses a problem for this guy, in a way, and therein lies the humor.

(This is Scary Gary (the vampire on the left) for May 2, 2017.)

Owen the ghost feels alive, so for him, being dead is contrary to reality, hence the subjunctive. The humor, of course, is in his misinterpretation of Gary’s question. But his grammar is perfect.

What I’d like to know is how Gary can balance a full coffee cup on the arm of an overstuffed sofa.

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A little Greek lesson

rogersgeorge on January 28th, 2014

Bob Thaves, the cartoonist who creates Frank and Ernest, is the master of the pun. If you don’t read his strip, I recommend you check it out. It’s a good way to start your day.

Frank & Ernest

So the humor here is (I think, unless Bob knows Greek) that the guy on the right is using the subjunctive in his reply. However, he’s not! The subjunctive expresses unreality. I plan to get into more detail on the subjunctive in a future post; let it suffice here that if he had said something like “I would have, but Grog beat me to it.” —that would be the subjunctive. (Notice that I just used the subjunctive—I’m saying that he didn’t actually use the subjunctive.)

And that leads to my Greek lesson: In Greek your verb forms can get yet one more step away from reality. It’s called the optative, and its meaning is to express a wish. (It’s pretty easy to spot an optative in Greek. Look for an oi in the middle of the verb. Subjunctives are harder; they generally involve lengthening the thematic vowel, and the rules for that can get tricky. But I digress.)

So our cave man could have just invented the optative, and Bob is giving us Greek geeks an inside joke.