Stumped by the Subjunctive

by Beth McAuley

Published at 2017-07-06

I recently subscribed to the Globe and Mail for the Friday and Saturday editions. Friday's paper includes the Report on Business the last Friday of each month, and is a magazine I want to read more regularly. The first issue I received wasn't a disappointment (June 2017). The cover story took an inside look at the changeover of CEOs at Rogers and made for a compelling read. In his Editor's Note, Duncan Hood provided a well-written and succinct overview of the machinations inside the Rogers Empire, and it was here that I stumbled across a phrase that had me stumped.


Hood is discussing the installation of the new CEO and the Rogers wish that the scandal surrounding this latest appointment be put to rest. “But,” Hood writes, “there’s some bigger baggage here that still needs addressing, lest Rogers find itself caught in a terminal holding pattern.”


Here’s where I stumbled: “lest Rogers find itself caught…”


Okay, I thought, am I missing something or is there something wrong with “lest Rogers find”? Shouldn’t it be “lest Rogers finds itself”?


I had to stop reading, take out my highlighter (an editor always travels with pencils, pens, and highlighters for moments like this), and flag the sentence so I could ask my colleagues at the TEC office for their editorial opinions.



It’s the Subjunctive!

When I read the sentence out loud to Barbara and Lesley-Anne, Barbara quickly said, “It’s the subjunctive.” Again, I was stumped. What was I not understanding?


I know the subjunctive as a verb form that expresses something you wish for, or a hypothetical rather than an actual situation. For example:

If only I were ten years younger.

I only wish that what you say were true. 

In these examples, the subjunctive is distinguished by the use of be and were instead of the indicative forms of am is, are, was.

I am also familiar with using the subjunctive with would, should, could. As Harvard Business Review recently wrote: “To avoid this trap, take some time before executing your decision and ask yourself what would’ve happened if you’d made the opposite choice.”

Note that usage seems to be changing in phrases such as if I were youif it were up to me, etc. People often say if I was you and if it was up to me, but the subjunctive is preferable in writing, especially any formal or academic prose. The phrase as it were, however, cannot be modified:


Having to ask permission, as it were, to see her friends …

Suddenly, as it were overnight, the weather became hot and sultry.


The Subjunctive as Suggestion

And then there are the less familiar forms of the subjunctive. This is the form Hood was using, the subjunctive used to indicate that something is being suggested or demanded:

The report recommends that he face the tribunal.

It is important that they be aware of the provisions of the Act. 

Lest he forget where he came from!


In this form of the subjunctive, the final letter -s of the third person singular (he/she/it) in the present tense is dropped: that he face the tribunal, not he faces.


And so, “lest Rogers find itself caught in a terminal holding pattern.”  And there is the answer to my question.



The Hidden Subjunctive in Common Phrases  

It seems we use the subjunctive more often than we know. Here are some set phrases you will recognize that contain a hidden subjunctive: 

  • Come what may!
  • Far be it from me to …
  • God save the Queen!
  • Heaven forbid!
  • Perish the thought!
  • So be it. 
  • Suffice it to say ... 
  • Woe betide ...


Another note: Many people will say “Suffice to say,” which could be explained as a failure to recognize that “Suffice it to say” is the subjunctive, with it as the grammatical subject.



Editors Are Always Learning

This moment reflects what is so rewarding about being an editor: the constant learning about our English language and the ability to look at what we don’t know in the spirit of learning and improving our craft. This could be an answer to the question an acquaintance asked me the other day, “What does it take to be an editor?”




Source: “When to Use the Subjunctive,” English Oxford Living Dictionaries