Language Learning: Subjunctives in Foreign Languages: English, German, Spanish and French (Part 1)
When learning a foreign language such as French, German or Spanish, you will sooner or later have to deal with the subjunctive mode, and its corresponding verb forms. No matter what your native language, this probably will be a difficult task, not only because of the number of different verb forms you will have to memorize, but perhaps even more so due to an insufficient understanding of the real-life situations in which the subjunctive mode can, should and even must be used.
First of all, don't think of "subjunctives" as being some sort of devil that was invented to torture you when you learn a foreign language. On the contrary, they're your friends! After all, without subjunctives, how else could you express ideas such as "If I were rich, I would buy a new Mercedes!" or "If Abe Lincoln were alive today, and could see Washington, D.C, he would not believe his eyes."
The first few articles in this series attempt to help us understand how we express "unreal" situations (for which subjunctives are commonly used) in English; subsequent articles on learning a foreign language will then explain how the same ideas are put into words using the corresponding forms in German, French, and Spanish.
If you have experience teaching a foreign language, you already know that the subjunctive mode can be quite confusing for native English speakers, since their forms have, to a great degree, disappeared from our language. We should begin, therefore by taking a look at a very common situation in which many languages routinely use subjunctive forms, even though we have adopted simple past tense verb forms, which we then use to describe "unreal" circumstances.
When we want to express a thought about something that is not "real", we use the subjunctive mode. For example: "I am not in Rome right now, but if I were in Rome, I would visit the Vatican."
The "I were" in "if I were" is known as the subjunctive mode: it concerns a situation that is not real. The sentence as a whole is known as a "speculative conditional", as it expresses a circumstance that would, under a certain condition, happen.
There are two clauses in this sentence:
1) The dependent clause ("If I were in Rome"), in which the verb is in the so-called "subjunctive" (expresses something unreal: after all, I am really not in Rome right now.)
2) The independent clause ("I would visit the Vatican"); the verb is in conditional mode (that uses "would" in English).
These days, the subjunctive forms have largely disappeared in English. For example, in the above sentence, many people today would say:
"If I was in Rome, I would visit the Vatican." Being a lover of precision in speech, I must admit that I cringe when I hear this, for "if I was in Rome" is ambiguous in its meaning. People who use "was" in the above situation are using it to express an "unreal" situation, i.e., "I am not in Rome, but if I was (were), I would..."
Yet consider this sentence: "If I was in Rome, I have totally forgotten it."
Here, the situation is not unreal: perhaps, for example, a very old person has forgotten much of what he did in life. Someone tells him that 40 years ago, he was in Rome. The senior citizen replies:
"If I was in Rome..." that is, maybe he actually was but has forgotten it.
Because this sentence is not about something unreal, the second part is not in conditional mode: "I have totally forgotten it." (present perfect)
Therefore, when we begin "if I were...", it immediately tells the listener that the situation is unreal, as opposed to something that really did (or really may have) happened in the past. Thus, the distinction between "if I were" and "if I was" is quite legitimate, and they should both be used, depending on the situation.
Okay, I readily admit that my tastes are quite old-fashioned in this respect. As early as the 18th century, the subjunctive forms were already being substituted by forms of the simple past (the "was" in our example), as I myself have seen when reading the works of people like John Adams, our second president, and Adam Smith, author of the famous book on economics "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" (1776). So I guess I'll just have to get used to the fact that our language is losing its precision, at least as far as verb forms are concerned!
In the Part 2 of this series, we will examine the probable reasons why English speakers have distanced themselves form the older subjunctive forms, and prefer to use the simple past verb forms when expressing "subjunctive" (unreal) situations.
Next article: Subjunctives, Part 2