Whither the subjunctive?

Yes, language changes. But this old-fashioned verb mood is still useful when the voice of authority speaks.

Ted S. Warren/AP
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduces the new Amazon Fire Phone.

It was a rare event a few weeks ago, like the once-in-a-lifetime appearance of a comet swinging by Earth: A music video on language usage has crashed into the copy-editing blogosphere. Links to “Word Crimes,” the latest big hit from parodiste extraordinaire “Weird Al” Yankovic, have been flying around the Internet, including into the inbox of yours truly.

But the issue on my mind this week is “whither the subjunctive?”

A recent article about Big Data made the point that companies should look to use data to make a lot of small gains in operations and profitability that, ultimately, should add up. It’s about going beyond the old Pareto principle, the 80/20 rule, to get the last 20 percent of gain out of the 80 percent of “stuff” that one otherwise tends to disregard.

It was an interesting discussion, but here’s the sentence that caught my eye: “Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, insists that all decisions in his company are based on statistical analyses.”

Everything I’ve read about Mr. Bezos and his running of Amazon, the online emporium that has transformed e-commerce, tells me that he is in a position to insist that all decisions in his company be based on statistical analyses.

The subjunctive may be in more trouble than I thought.

Yes, language changes, and certain forms and distinctions tend to disappear over time, as new ones develop.

The distinction between “where” and “whither,” for instance, has largely fallen out of contemporary English. Whither lives on with a specialized meaning, as Macmillan defines it: “a word used for asking what will happen to something in the future.” 

But in the old days, people asked, “Where are you?” and “Whither are you going?” (Actually, in the heyday of “whither,” people asked, “Whither goest thou?”) Where applied to stationary situations, and whither to people and things in motion. But there’s no confusion if the distinction is dropped. The verb establishes whether motion is involved. 

In the Bezos reference, though, the indicative “is” rather than the subjunctive “be” conveys a different meaning. There’s room for honest confusion, in other words.

There’s a kind of third-party indicative-mood “insisting,” as in, “Tom insisted that Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player of all time.” Tom may be right, as an outside, years-after-the-fact observer. But he had nothing to do with Ruth’s greatness.

The Bezos sentence, though, suggests he was an outside commentator, whereas we know he literally had a seat at the table. He has a lot to do with Amazon’s success.

The voice of authority often speaks in the subjunctive: “I insist that he come here at once.” That may be too much for the ostensibly egalitarian ethos of our time – but let’s not kid ourselves about the various authorities to which we are all subject. That’s why the subjunctive is still useful.

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