A Verb Form I Don’t Often See

rogersgeorge on October 19th, 2016

A second person singular subjunctive passive present progressive linking verb! First cell of a recent Arctic Circle: you could be being monitored. Savor it! I’m not even sure what order I should put the descriptors in.

It reminds me of the juvenile joke of snickering when you hear someone using the present emphatic of “do.”

The present progressive tells your reader that something is continuing to happen, right now, as you’re telling it. The past progressive says it was continuing to happen in the past, but not any more, but then you miss out on the subjunctive (the “could be”) if you want the idea of the past with subjunctive and passive, you need the present perfect: “could have been being monitored.”

Aren’t you glad you’re a native speaker of English and don’t have to think about all that stuff? But I think it’s fun for me to be being read on such esoteric subjects.

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The subjunctive

rogersgeorge on March 4th, 2014

English verbs can exhibit a feature called mood. Moods have to do with the the reality of what you’re speaking (or writing) about. That might not be a very useful definition, but you no doubt recognize the names of the moods from grade school. You use the indicative when you’re asserting something to be true. You use the interrogative to ask a question.  The imperative is for when you give a command. And the subjunctive is for when something is not real. In English, most verbs don’t have a separate form for the subjunctive; you have to figure it out from the context.

However, the verb to be does have a subjunctive form. It’s were. Now that looks like the past tense form, so you still need some context. The context you need is some way to say that the situation is not real. For example, if you were to start a sentence with If, you should use the subjunctive.

If I were in better shape, I could swim farther. But I’m not, so I can’t.

The normal past tense (indicative) is I was. I need the subjunctive because I’m not actually in good enough shape. Could, by the way, is a modal auxiliary, and I don’t want to get into those in this post, but note that you have to write could instead of can because you’re using the subjunctive. This is intuitive for native speakers of English. People generally get the could-can dichotomy right, but people fairly commonly get the main verb wrong, saying “If I was in better shape..”

Another contextual indication of the subjunctive is to express a wish, and that leads us to today’s comic grammar lesson, and a reminder that we parents should always tell our kids the truth, from Zach Weiner’s excellent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

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.

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. “