Results 1 to 7 of 7
  1. #1
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Student or Learner
      • Native Language:
      • Polish
      • Home Country:
      • Poland
      • Current Location:
      • Poland
    Join Date
    Jul 2010
    Posts
    5,099
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default "whether it be" and "whether it were",

    As you may have noticed, I strive to understand the English subjunctive mood. It's difficult to get answers -- the sources that I'm able to find on the internet are insufficient and my questions here and elsewhere are often met with a "we rarely use the subjunctive nowadays" or just an "I don't know". I think this question might not be one of those.

    I'm posting a passage from "The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus... translated by William Whiston, A. M." (1815). I'm posting it all because, luckily for me, four examples of what I'm asking about can be found in this relatively short text. I will put those fragments in bold so you don't have to read the whole text. (Which isn't easy -- William Whiston, A. M. certainly didn't overuse the full stop.)

    It's going to be a long post. I'm sorry about this and I will understand if no one replies. Although I still hope someone does.

    6. When this was over, one Trypho, who was the king's barber, took the opportunity, and came and told the king, that Tero would often have persuaded him, when he trimmed him with a razor, to cut his throat, for that by this means he should be among the chief of Alexander's friends, and receive great rewards from him. When he had said this, the king gave order that Tero, and his son, and the barber, should be tortured, which was done accordingly; but while Tero bore up himself, his son, seeing his father already in a sad case, and had no hope of deliverance, and perceiving what would be the consequence of his terrible sufferings, said, that " if the king would here free him and his father from those torments for what he should say, he would tell the truth." And when the king had given his word to do so, he said, That " there was an agreement made, that Tero should lay violent hands on the king, because it was easy for him to come when he was alone; and that if, when he had done the thing, he should suffer death for it, as was not unlikely, it would be an act of generosity done in favour of Alexander." This was what Tero's son said, and thereby freed his father from the distress he was in; but uncertain it is, whether he had been thus forced to speak what was true, or whether it were a contrivance of his in order to procure his own and his father's deliverance from their miseries.

    7. As for Herod, if he had before any doubt about the slaughter of his sons, there was now no longer any room left in his soul for it, but he had banished away whatsoever might afford him the least suggestion of reasoning better about this matter, so he already made haste to bring his purpose to a conclusion. He also brought out three hundred of the officers that were under an accusation, as also Tero, and his son, and the barber that accused them, before an assembly, and brought an accusation against them all; whom the multitude stoned with whatsoever came to hand, and thereby slew them. Alexander also and Aristobulus were brought to Sebaste, by their father's command, and there strangled: but their dead bodies were in the night-time carried to Alexandrium, where their uncle, by the mother's side, and the greatest part of their ancestors had been deposited.

    8. And now perhaps it may not seem unreasonable to some, that such an inveterate hatred might increase so much [on both sides] as to proceed farther, and to overcome nature: but it may justly deserve consideration, whether it be to be laid to the charge of the young men, that they gave such an occasion to their father's anger, and led him to do what he did, and by going on longer in the same way, put things past remedy, and brought him to use them so unmercifully; or whether it be to be laid to the father's charge, that he was so hard-hearted, and so very tender in the desire of government, and of other things that would tend to his glory, that he would take no one into partnership with him, that so whatsoever he would have done himself might continue immoveable; or indeed, whether fortune have not greater power than all prudent reasonings: whence we are persuaded that human actions are thereby determined beforehand by an inevitable necessity, and we call her Fate, because there is nothing which is not done by her; wherefore I suppose it will be sufficient to compare this notion with that other which attributes somewhat to ourselves, and renders men not unaccountable for the different conducts of their lives, which notion is no other than the philosophical determination of our ancient law. Accordingly, of the two other causes of this sad event, any body may lay the blame on the young men, who acted by youthful vanity, and pride of their royal birth, that they should bear to hear the calumnies that were raised against their father, while certainly they were not equitable judges of the actions of his life, but ill-natured in suspecting, and intemperate in speaking of it, and on both accounts easily caught by those that observed them, and revealed them, to gain favour; yet cannot their father be thought worthy of excuse as to that horrid impiety which he was guilty of about them, while he ventured, without any certain evidence of their treacherous designs against him, and without any proofs that they had made preparations for such attempts, to kill his own sons, who were of very comely bodies, and the great darlings of other men, and no way deficient in their conduct, whether it were in hunting, or warlike exercises, or in speaking upon occasional topies of discourse; for in all these they were skilful, and especially Alexander, who was the eldest; for certainly it had been sufficient, even though he had condemned them, to have kept them alive in bonds, or to let them live at a distance from his dominions in banishment, while he was surrounded by the Roman forces, which were a strong security te him, whose help would prevent his suffering any thing by a sudden onset, or by open force; but for him to kill them on the sudden, in order to gratify a passion that governed him, was a demonstration of insufferable impiety: he also was guilty of so great a crime in his elder age; nor will the delays that he made, and the length of time in which the thing was done, plead at all for his excuse; for when a man is on a sudden amazed, and in commotion of mind, and then commits a wicked action, although this be an heavy crime, yet is it a thing that frequently happens; but to do it upon deliberation, and after frequent attempts, and as frequent puttings off, to undertake it at last, and accomplish it, was the action of a murderous mind, and such as was not easily moved from that which is evil: and this temper he showed in what he did afterwards, when he did not spare those that seemed to be the best beloved of his friends that were left, wherein, though the justice of the punishment caused those that perished to be the less pitied, yet was the barbarity of the man here equal, in that he did not abstain from their slaughter also; but of those persons we shall have occasion to discourse more hereafter.
    My question is about the use of the present and the past subjunctive after "whether" in this text and generally.

    It seems to me that the only reason for using the present subjunctive in some of these sentences and the past subjunctive in others is the tense. In this text and in other texts I was able to find, the distinction is always this: the past subjunctive is used after "whether" where the previous part of the sentence is in a past tense, and the present subjunctive is used where the previous part of the sentence is in a present tense. I can think of no other explanation for this but that it's the sequence of tenses working here, because those clauses seem to have exactly the same structure and the same semantic function. However, I've read many times that subjunctive verbs bear no tense. We can say

    I recommended that he go.

    not

    I recommended that he went.

    This confuses me. The subjunctive after "if" and "whether" seems to be something very different from the subjunctive as it is used with phrases like "it's important that" and "I recommend that". Is the following sentence correct?

    They could have done it, be they men or women.


    Or must it be

    They could have done it, were they men or women.

    (if we assume the prescriptive, "obligatory sequence of tenses" stance)?

    I would also be grateful if someone would verify the following. I think the constructions in question are of the same kind as these:

    Read it, and then say if it be not most base! (1811)

    If it be true, that Maneto wants some one, would he not prefer an Indian?
    (1823)

    in that they are all not counterfactual, including those with "whether it were".

    Is it so that subjunctive verbs do bear tense when they are used with "if" or "whether" and that counterfactuality simply pushes them one step back in those cases? Does the subjunctive used in the "it's important that" type of constructions differ from that in this regard?

  2. #2
    5jj's Avatar
    5jj is offline VIP Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Retired English Teacher
      • Native Language:
      • British English
      • Home Country:
      • England
      • Current Location:
      • Czech Republic
    Join Date
    Oct 2010
    Posts
    28,168
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: "whether it be" and "whether it were",

    I remember that TheParser’s hero, Curme, has quite a few pages on the subjunctive, so I’m off to see what I can find. I’ll let you know tomorrow if I find anything useful.

    In the meantime, I’m wondering if the I recommend that he go/went question is connected with the indirect speech question that crops up from time to time about whether we have to backshift:

    Peter: “I go to my cottage every weekend.”
    He said that Peter goes/went to his cottage every weekend.

    “Goes” is possible if we know that the statement reported is still true at the moment of reporting.

    “I recommend that you go …”
    He recommended that I go/went …

    “Go” is possible because the fact of the recommendation is still true; whether I went or not is irrelevant. “Went”, for the subjunctive-user is not possible; it would suggest, I think, a going before the recommendation – obviously not possible, at least not in the sense of the going being a consequence of the recommending.


    Just a thought.

  3. #3
    5jj's Avatar
    5jj is offline VIP Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Retired English Teacher
      • Native Language:
      • British English
      • Home Country:
      • England
      • Current Location:
      • Czech Republic
    Join Date
    Oct 2010
    Posts
    28,168
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: "whether it be" and "whether it were",

    I am afraid that dear George keeps sending me to sleep, so I shall be a little longer than I said.

    Incidentally, a personal thought: I am not sure that were they as a past tense form of be they was ever used.

  4. #4
    pollis is offline Newbie
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Student or Learner
      • Native Language:
      • Bosnian
      • Home Country:
      • Bosnia Herzegovina
      • Current Location:
      • Bosnia Herzegovina
    Join Date
    Oct 2011
    Posts
    5
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: "whether it be" and "whether it were",

    However, I've read many times that subjunctive verbs bear no tense.
    Verbs in subjunctive mood are finite, i.e,, they do indeed show tense.

    the past subjunctive is used after "whether" where the previous part of the sentence is in a past tense, and the present subjunctive is used where the previous part of the sentence is in a present tense.
    As far as an incompetent learner like me can tell, this is not necessarily a constraint, but rather a convention in careful discourse.

  5. #5
    5jj's Avatar
    5jj is offline VIP Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Retired English Teacher
      • Native Language:
      • British English
      • Home Country:
      • England
      • Current Location:
      • Czech Republic
    Join Date
    Oct 2010
    Posts
    28,168
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: "whether it be" and "whether it were",

    Before I begin, I have to say that Whiston’s pose was pretty stylised even for 1815, and translations in those days sometimes stuck rather closely to the grammar patterns of the original language. I don’t think we can say for sure that other writers would necessarily handle their verbs in the way that Whiston does.

    This extract from Curme (1931!) may be relevant.

    “In recent literature and present colloquial usage […] the tendency found in early Modern usage to break through our rigid sequence and employ the simple present subjunctive even after a past tense has grown stronger, since the simple present subjunctive with its implication of early and immediate execution has become associated with the expression of will in general without reference to the tense of the original verb; I desire, demand, or suggest, or I desired demanded. or suggested, that action be postponed’.”

    I could find no examples of whether’ with a subjunctive, but that proves nothing. The only examples of subject+were inversion I could find were present (or future) time, e.g. ‘Were he only here I would give all that I have!’.

    The rest is my opinion, for what (little it’s worth.
    he ventured […] to kill his own sons, who were of very comely bodies, and the great darlings of other men, and no way deficient in their conduct, whether it were in hunting, or warlike exercises, or in speaking upon occasional topics of discourse;
    I do not think that the words I have underlined can be replaced by ‘were it’. I think they could be replaced by ‘be it’, with a co-temporal rather than a present-time sense.[QUOTE]It seems to me that the only reason for using the present subjunctive in some of these sentences and the past subjunctive in others is the tense. In this text and in other texts I was able to find, the distinction is always this: the past subjunctive is used after "whether" where the previous part of the sentence is in a past tense, and the present subjunctive is used where the previous part of the sentence is in a present tense. [/QUOTE} This seems to be what Curme is suggesting in places. However, he brings in so many confusing examples with modals that, frankly, I don’t really understand his arguments.

    I've read many times that subjunctive verbs bear no tense. We can say

    I recommended that he go.....not....I recommended that he went.
    In the example you gave there, and in the ‘were/be it’ case I mentioned above, I think this is so. However, verbs in the subjunctive mode can show tense, as we see in conditional sentences.
    This confuses me. The subjunctive after "if" and "whether" seems to be something very different from the subjunctive as it is used with phrases like "it's important that" and "I recommend that".
    Yes, I think it is

    Is the following sentence correct?

    They could have done it, be they men or women.....
    Or must it be....They could have done it, were they men or women.

    (if we assume the prescriptive, "obligatory sequence of tenses" stance)?
    I think it must be ‘be it’, for reasons I have explained.

    I’ll stop there before I get into a real mire.

    If you can get hold of a copy, I recommend you read Curme, George O. (1931) Syntax, Boston: Heath, Pages 390-430 . Some of the answers you are looking for may be in there, but my aged brain is not up to finding them.

  6. #6
    5jj's Avatar
    5jj is offline VIP Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Retired English Teacher
      • Native Language:
      • British English
      • Home Country:
      • England
      • Current Location:
      • Czech Republic
    Join Date
    Oct 2010
    Posts
    28,168
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: "whether it be" and "whether it were",

    Before I begin, I have to say that Whiston’s pose was pretty stylised even for 1815, and translations in those days sometimes stuck rather closely to the grammar patterns of the original language. I don’t think we can say for sure that other writers would necessarily handle their verbs in the way that Whiston does.

    This extract from Curme (1931!) may be relevant.

    “In recent literature and present colloquial usage […] the tendency found in early Modern usage to break through our rigid sequence and employ the simple present subjunctive even after a past tense has grown stronger, since the simple present subjunctive with its implication of early and immediate execution has become associated with the expression of will in general without reference to the tense of the original verb; I desire, demand, or suggest, or I desired demanded. or suggested, that action be postponed’.”

    I could find no examples of whether’ with a subjunctive, but that proves nothing. The only examples of subject+were inversion I could find were present (or future) time, e.g. ‘Were he only here I would give all that I have!’.

    The rest is my opinion, for what (little it’s worth.
    he ventured […] to kill his own sons, who were of very comely bodies, and the great darlings of other men, and no way deficient in their conduct, whether it were in hunting, or warlike exercises, or in speaking upon occasional topics of discourse;
    I do not think that the words I have underlined can be replaced by ‘were it’. I think they could be replaced by ‘be it’, with a co-temporal rather than a present-time sense.
    It seems to me that the only reason for using the present subjunctive in some of these sentences and the past subjunctive in others is the tense. In this text and in other texts I was able to find, the distinction is always this: the past subjunctive is used after "whether" where the previous part of the sentence is in a past tense, and the present subjunctive is used where the previous part of the sentence is in a present tense.
    This seems to be what Curme is suggesting in places. However, he brings in so many confusing examples with modals that, frankly, I don’t really understand his arguments.

    I've read many times that subjunctive verbs bear no tense. We can say

    I recommended that he go.....not....I recommended that he went.
    In the example you gave there, and in the ‘were/be it’ case I mentioned above, I think this is so. However, verbs in the subjunctive mode can show tense, as we see in conditional sentences.
    This confuses me. The subjunctive after "if" and "whether" seems to be something very different from the subjunctive as it is used with phrases like "it's important that" and "I recommend that".
    Yes, I think it is

    Is the following sentence correct?

    They could have done it, be they men or women.....
    Or must it be....They could have done it, were they men or women.

    (if we assume the prescriptive, "obligatory sequence of tenses" stance)?
    I think it must be ‘be it’, for reasons I have explained.

    I’ll stop there before I get into a real mire.

    If you can get hold of a copy, I recommend you read Curme, George O. (1931) Syntax, Boston: Heath, Pages 390-430 . Some of the answers you are looking for may be in there, but my aged brain is not up to finding them.
    Last edited by 5jj; 11-Oct-2011 at 11:29. Reason: formatting error

  7. #7
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
    • Member Info
      • Member Type:
      • Student or Learner
      • Native Language:
      • Polish
      • Home Country:
      • Poland
      • Current Location:
      • Poland
    Join Date
    Jul 2010
    Posts
    5,099
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Re: "whether it be" and "whether it were",

    This was very helpful. Thanks.

Similar Threads

  1. Defining "Street," "Road," "Avenue," "Boulevard"
    By ahumphreys in forum Ask a Teacher
    Replies: 3
    Last Post: 31-Dec-2010, 07:14
  2. [Vocabulary] Difference between "health" and "wellness", "Diagnosis" and "Analysis"
    By tobysky in forum Ask a Teacher
    Replies: 1
    Last Post: 28-Dec-2010, 22:43
  3. [Vocabulary] How do you pronounce "Cotton", "Button", "Britain", "Manhattan"...
    By Williamyh in forum Pronunciation and Phonetics
    Replies: 3
    Last Post: 24-Dec-2009, 08:36
  4. Replies: 2
    Last Post: 08-Sep-2008, 08:27
  5. confusing words "expressed" or "express" and "named" or"names"
    By Dawood Usmani in forum Ask a Teacher
    Replies: 3
    Last Post: 26-Oct-2007, 19:33

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •