May the subjunctive be with you

After I posted on Instagram last week for Star Wars day, I couldn’t stop seeing Lucas-inspired linguistic curiosities.

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Yodish may be characterised by a simple inversion of subject and object, but the effect can be to create subtle emphasis. So when he says ‘Powerful you have become. The dark side I sense in you,’ it’s the adjective powerful and the object the dark side that are juxtaposed.

(Interestingly when the message is the essence of the story, the construction is unambiguous: ‘Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.’)

What’s also powerfully subtle, though, is the fact that the Star Wars franchise presents us with a nice and easy example of the subjunctive mood, which is what I’m here to focus on now. Mind you, it didn’t jump out at me until I saw it in French:

Que la force soit avec toi.
‘May the force be with you.’

Most users are barely aware of the subjunctive mood in English, partly because it’s rarely used in modern English, but also because when it is used, it looks a lot like the verbs we do use in the indicative mood.

In French, as any beleaguered French learner will tell you, the subjonctif requires a separate conjugation of verbs, which sometimes looks the same as a present tense verb (with some third person present conjugations). But irregular verbs – y’know, the ones we actually use most of the time – use completely different conjugations for the subjonctif. That’s why the soit in que la force soit avec toi immediately alerts us to the use of the subjunctive in the Jedi blessing.

But what is the subjunctive mood?

It’s used to express an unknown or uncertain truth or outcome. So, it could be used, for example, following the verbs recommend, suggest, or require:

I recommend that you be there.
I suggest that she come with us.
He requires that it be done that way.

Clearly, this is a very formal level of expression, not for everyday use. It’s formed using the base form of the verb, that is, the infinitive without to. But most of us would be more likely to say,

I recommend that you are there.
I suggest that she comes with us.
He requires that it should be done that way.

So we would use the simple present tense, or the modal verb should.

There are a few other stand-alone phrases where we automatically use the subjunctive, such as,

God save the Queen.
…as it were.
If I were you…

But generally – unlike those poor French learners, who have to learn that the subjonctif always follows il faut que (which is used a lot) or a list of several other verbs where it is NOT optional, pas du tout – in English, we don’t have to think too much about the subjunctive, unless we want to, of course.

And since I clearly do want to think about it, this much, I don’t know what else could confirm my #grammargeek credentials to those who have read this far.

May not having to worry about the subjunctive be with you.

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