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  1. #1
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    Default Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Those who have followed the various discussions on the subjunctive in UE forums might be interested in something I noticed about thirty minutes into the film version of Le Carré's 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'.The speakers are Connie Sachs and George Smiley:

    1. C: I requested that he be checked out.

    2. C: But what if the story was true?

    3. G: Why would you salute a cultural attach
    é?
    ....C: Exactly - unless he was a war veteran himself, and - if he was - why would he hide the fact?

    I doubt if many people would have used the present subjunctive in #1, even 35 years ago, when the film was set. However, Connie, an upper-middle-class Oxford don, almost certainly would have used it.

    Rather more people would have used a subjunctive in #2, and would still do so today. Connie certainly would have done so. A surprising oversight on the part of the scriptwriters, in my opinion.

    There is perhaps an excuse in #3. Connie and George could be accepting that 'he' was a war veteran.


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  2. #2
    konungursvia's Avatar
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    It's always interesting talking about the subjunctive in English, in the same sense archaeology is interesting. I always feel like we're examining plastic skeletal coccyx models and then talking about monkeys' tails: in English, you can get by thinking of the subjunctive as a nearly defunct relic of some ancient artifact of the language.

    That's why I find you can't really talk about it intelligently (picture three dinosaur ribs, along with a plastic reconstruction of the rest of the supposed creature) -- without looking at its living relatives: how does the subjunctive work in French and German, or even Spanish, Portuguese and Icelandic?

    All this just to justify my suspicion that "if I were you" may not be a subjunctive at all; or if it is, it's an entirely optional one based on how delicately you wish to avoid evoking something. After all, you can easily view "if I was you" as a past-hypothetical, related to "if I had a million dollars. This kind of past-hypothetical is regularly used to describe conditions (as opposed to the conditionals that usually follow them --"I would buy you a green dress"). So with conditionals, and the past-hypothetical verb that often accompanies them, there is no question at all of a subjunctive surfacing in the sentence.

    To illustrate what I mean about whether your feelings play a role, you could say either of the following, of a woman you didn't think highly of: a) However pretty she may be, her popularity is no reason to elect her president of the student council. or b) She is obviously very beautiful, but that's no reason.... The distinction being that in a), you don't even want to acknowledge whether or not you agree she's beautiful, whereas in b), you don't mind doing so. It may be the same with if I was you: if you're comfortable you don't need to walk on eggshells with the person you're talking to, maybe you don't need a subjunctive to imagine taking their place.

    Another point I've been thinking of sharing... in some thread I can't find, a learned teacher asserted that the English subjunctive is only audible or noticeable in the verb "to be:" were, be being the two examples given.

    I'm pretty sure it's audible/noticeable/exists in the third person with all verbs: the usual -s suffix disappears when it rears its ancient head:

    * It is crucial that he raise enough money;
    * It is imperative that she find the time to attend; etc.

    The last thing I was thinking of contributing was that dialogue frees the writer to be inconsistent, if he or she feels a character would say something a certain way. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke at Oxford, he would use more standard constructions than years later, when on TV in the States. Educated people can avoid sounding educated when they're playing the modesty card. Maybe the character was depicted at that point as not wanting to outshine the interlocutor with good grammar. (I don't know).

    In any case, I enjoyed reading the Le Carré work you're talking about, but I find he's such an ordinary writer (as opposed to story-teller) that I usually forget 100% of his books within weeks. Is he good enough a bard to examine with such a fine toothed comb? I'm not sure he is.

    ;)
    Last edited by konungursvia; 22-Jan-2012 at 20:26.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    I have a higher opinion of le Carré than you, but that's not relevant here. The lines I quoted from the film are the scriptwriter's - they don't appear in the book. They just happened to catch my attention as I was watching. One day I may re-read all my Smiley novels and keep an eye out to see how le Carré uses his subjunctives; not today.

    I think that in the thread you were referring to some of us were arguing that the past subjunctive was only noticeable in 'to be'. We felt that, as the indicative form was used by most speakers in BrE (with the possible exception of "If I were you", which we might call a fossilized expression), it was pointless to speak of a subjunctive mood in modern British English. We reinforced this with the claim that the present subjunctive was dead for 99% of speakers of BrE, apart from a few fossils (phrases, that is, not speakers. But then again ...).

    I'll see if I can find the thread and give you a link, but I must warn you that it's tedious. It developed into a discussion with one member who claimed that all 'educated' speakers insisted that only the subjunctive was acceptable in such cases.

    Later: This is the thread you were talking about: If I "were" king instead of "was" - UsingEnglish.com ESL Forum You were one of the participants in the discussion.
    Last edited by 5jj; 22-Jan-2012 at 20:55. Reason: link added
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  4. #4
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Being a non-native speaker, I have always found the English subjunctive fascinating as I learned more and more about it. In fact, I have always been interested in the idiosyncrasies of English, though I am surely not aware of many of them. Trivial is not what makes a language interesting. By the virtue of my university, particularly my literature course, I had the fortune to come across Shakespeare's writings, which I wouldn't have been eager to read if it had not been for the course, because I have never been a literature lover. A plethora of unusual constructions, inversions etc., which even if they were harder to understand, they drew my attention. There were not just English, but beautiful English. But that is another thing, now back on topic because I digressed from the purpose of the topic to my personal interests.

    In speaking, I certainly wouldn't have used the subjunctive in #1 and neither in #2. As about #3, I might have used it in "unless he was", but I would have absolutely used it in "if he was". But that just because I see it as 5jj calls it, a fossilized expression. I use "I'd rather you didn't", "you had better not go", "as if she were", "I wish I were", "if I were", "it's high time he got a job" constructions in conversation, but I would probably never use the subjunctive in the usual if clauses. As about writing, I use constructions like "it is required that he go (should go) there", "lest you should miss the train" once in a while and I also use the subjunctive in usual if clauses, but just because I am by far more careful when it comes to writing.

    I rarely hear or see the subjunctive used these days. You will probably not hear the subjunctive being used in nowadays films, tv shows or talk shows, but I remember hearing it in older, respectable films or masterpieces (in my opinion) as Harry Potter. I can partially remember it now, it was something like "... Harry, it is important that you should go...". I think that it is more used in BrE than in AmE and that must be the reason we do not hear today very much, because the most films are American productions. However, the forums or websites related to the English language are the places where I found it fairly used. My teachers use it as well.

    You may find it odd, but sometimes I smile when I hear it used where I when expecting it. I don't want to offend anyone, but I tend to think that it is more used by educated people in terms of language (academic) than by normal speakers.

    Now it seems like it is vanishing and that is bugging me, people start talking simpler and simpler, forget and forsake the beauty of the language their ancestors once spoke.
    Last edited by SirGod; 24-Jan-2012 at 23:46.

  5. #5
    Tdol is online now Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Quote Originally Posted by konungursvia View Post
    It's always interesting talking about the subjunctive in English, in the same sense archaeology is interesting. I always feel like we're examining plastic skeletal coccyx models and then talking about monkeys' tails: in English, you can get by thinking of the subjunctive as a nearly defunct relic of some ancient artifact of the language.
    That's an interesting comparison- I use If I were, and a few fossilised expressions like God help you and never really think of them as subjunctives.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Quote Originally Posted by Tdol View Post
    That's an interesting comparison- I use If I were, and a few fossilised expressions like God help you and never really think of them as subjunctives.
    That's a point I make when I am discussing this with people who insist that learners be () taught about the subjunctive. I see no value at all in burdening learners with something about which most native speakers these days are ignorant - in British English, at least.

    I do tend to use subjunctive forms, especially in more formal writing, but that is mainly because they were so drummed into me in my rather old-fashioned school in the late 1950s and early 1960s that I can't get rid of them. It's one of several things ('whom' is another) that make my writing seem stuffy and pretentious.

    In my opinion, people who are learning English in order to communicate do not need to learn about the subjunctive, and certainly should not be encouraged to use it in situations when most native speakers don't. Expressions such as 'if I were you' can be presented as idiomatic phrases.

    Those who wish to learn about the history and development of 'correct' English can read about it if they wish. There is some fascinating () information about the subjunctive in Curme, George O. (1931) Syntax, Boston: Heath, pages 390-430.
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  7. #7
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Quote Originally Posted by SirGod View Post
    Being a non-native speaker, I have always found the English subjunctive fascinating as I learned more and more about it. In fact, I have always been interested in the idiosyncrasies of English, though I am surely not aware of many of them. Trivial is not what makes a language interesting. By the virtue of my university, particularly my literature course, I had the fortune to come across Shakespeare's writings, which I wouldn't have been eager to read if it had not been for the course, because I have never been a literature lover. A plethora of unusual constructions, inversions etc., which even if they were harder to understand, they drew my attention. There were not just English, but beautiful English. But that is another thing, now back on topic because I digressed from the purpose of the topic to my personal interests.

    In speaking, I certainly wouldn't have used the subjunctive in #1 and neither in #2. As about #3, I might have used it in "unless he was", but I would have absolutely used it in "if he was". But that just because I see it as 5jj calls it, a fossilized expression. I use "I'd rather you didn't", "you had better not go", "as if she were", "I wish I were", "if I were", "it's high time he got a job" constructions in conversation, but I would probably never use the subjunctive in the usual if clauses. As about writing, I use constructions like "it is required that he go (should go) there", "lest you should miss the train" once in a while and I also use the subjunctive in usual if clauses, but just because I am by far more careful when it comes to writing.

    I rarely hear or see the subjunctive used these days. You will probably not hear the subjunctive being used in nowadays films, tv shows or talk shows, but I remember hearing it in older, respectable films or masterpieces (in my opinion) as Harry Potter. I can partially remember it now, it was something like "... Harry, it is important that you should go...". I think that it is more used in BrE than in AmE and that must be the reason we do not hear today very much, because the most films are American productions. However, the forums or websites related to the English language are the places where I found it fairly used. My teachers use it as well.

    You may find it odd, but sometimes I smile when I hear it used where I when expecting it. I don't want to offend anyone, but I tend to think that it is more used by educated people in terms of language (academic) than by normal speakers.

    Now it seems like it is vanishing and that is bugging me, people start to talk simpler and simpler, forget and forsake the beauty of the language their ancestors once spoke.
    Actually I find we use it slightly more on this side of the pond than the dear old Brits do. I don't mind it, I just find, by comparison with the other European languages, that we hardly have any of it left. Poor English learners, what have we got in store for you?

  8. #8
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Quote Originally Posted by konungursvia View Post
    Actually I find we use it slightly more on this side of the pond than the dear old Brits do. I don't mind it, I just find, by comparison with the other European languages, that we hardly have any of it left. Poor English learners, what have we got in store for you?
    Hmm, that's an interesting fact, actually. I have always had the impression that it is more used in BrE. Also, I have noticed that you are from Canada and I have a question for you. I have been told that the extinct "lest" is still used sometimes in CanE. Is it true? As about what's in store for us... I don't know, a banal language maybe, full of blatant idioms, slang and newly coined IT related terms.
    Last edited by SirGod; 24-Jan-2012 at 23:35.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Quote Originally Posted by SirGod View Post
    Hmm, that's an interesting fact, actually. I have always had the impression that it is more used in BrE.
    My feeling, reinforced by what I have learnt during my time with UE, is that the subjunctive is far more alive on the western side of the Atlantic than on the eastern side.
    Last edited by 5jj; 24-Jan-2012 at 23:47. Reason: spacing
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  10. #10
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    Default Re: Subjunctives in 'Tinker, Tailor, ...'

    Quote Originally Posted by SirGod View Post
    Hmm, that's an interesting fact, actually. I have always had the impression that it is more used in BrE. Also, I have noticed that you are from Canada and I have a question for you. I have been told that the extinct "lest" is still used sometimes in CanE. Is it true? As about what's in store for us... I don't know, a banal language maybe, full of blatant idioms, slang and newly coined IT related terms.
    It's not really used in speech or ordinary discourse, but survives (as in Australia and New Zealand) in the public consciousness because of Remembrance Day:

    Lest We Forget: Remembrance Day | CBC Archives

    (On the main topic, you may not realise that the Americas (Spanish, Portuguese, English, French) are considerably more conservative in their language traditions and usage than the Old Countries in Europe -- Take Europe 450 years ago, and that gives you a close approximation of our American dialects, with some new developments. The farther you are from Rome, the stricter the Latin teacher).

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