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ESL Lesson: Subjunctive

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Subjunctive or "Wishful Thinking"

What on earth is the "Subjunctive"? In many languages all the verb endings change and you have to learn them as if you are using a completely different tense. Now in English you'll be pleased to know that we've simplified it to such an extent that it has almost disappeared.

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Take the Present Subjunctive. You only really notice it in the 3rd person singular and it is used in expressions of wishing, hoping and praying. So we say "Long live the Queen"! which means in effect that we wish that the Queen will live a long time and the word «live», technically is the 3rd person singular of the Present Subjunctive and has no "s". But if I say «I hope you live to be 100 years old", that is the 2nd person singular of the Present Subjunctive but it is exactly the same in appearance as the 2nd person singular of the Present Simple. So, who says English is difficult!

Then again you'd hardly notice the Past Subjunctive because it's the same in form as the Past Simple and you find it most often in conditional sentences like this: "If I won the lottery, I'd buy a big house." "Won" is technically here the Past Subjunctive but surprise, surprise, it's the same as the Past Simple — wonderful. The only time you can spot it is in the verb «be» in expressions like: "If I were you …"

But today people are beginning to say as well: "If I was you" There is also occasional use of the Present Subjunctive of the verb "be" and the word is "be" in a sentence like "If this be true." but again you're more likely to hear/read: "If this is true." As I say we like to keep things simple. Another example of the Past Subjunctive is in expressions like: "It's high time we left." which means in effect: "The time has come when we should leave."

Incidentally you can show off that you know the subjunctive and also use a very convenient expression when you want to leave someone's house because either you're bored or you simply want to go home. Everyone will be so impressed with your knowledge of idiomatic English, that they can't possibly be offended. So that's the subjunctive in a nutshell. What I say is: "Long live English!"

Now I want you to read a little story I wrote and I would like you to try and find as many examples of the subjunctive as you can:

"Wishful Thinking"

Heaven help him, I thought when I saw the news item in my local paper that a young man in the area had won millions on the national lottery. It wasn't envy. I honestly felt sorry for him. To win thousands would be fine, but millions could be too much to handle. If need be, I supposed he could give it all way but then that would probably be worse than never having won the money in the first place. If only something like that were to happen to me, I said to myself. Now, I should have the maturity to know precisely what to do. It was high time I had a piece of luck. With these philosophical thoughts turning round in my mind I picked up my daily newspaper. They too ran a sort of lottery and if you had a scratch card with two sums of money the same as the one in the paper, then you won that amount. "Saints preserve us!", I yelled at the top of my voice, although I was alone at the time. Yes, you've guessed it. I had won £250,00. I went cold and found myself quoting Shakespeare: "If this be error and upon me proved …" I forgot the rest of the line. I was too excited.

Naturally I phoned everyone up and told them the news and I received plenty of advice. Someone suggested a financial plan should be drawn up to assess the different possible investments. Another proposed that I went straight to the bank for advice. A third insisted I did nothing until he had had time to consider what to do. I was seriously beginning to wonder who had won the money. The best advice came from the person who recommended that I should go out and enjoy myself. The trouble was that everyone reacted as if they knew everything about money and I hadn't the least idea. It seemed to me that I was being treated as if I were a complete fool.

Meanwhile I had to be sensible and take some practical steps in order to get hold of the money. It was time I stopped daydreaming and read the rules on the back of my scratch card. Either they would send you the cheque for the amount after you had sent them the appropriate card or you could actually go round to their main office and do the paperwork there. I thought I would sooner go round to the office. I felt I would rather get the matter sorted out at the headquarters. The first thing you were instructed to do was to ring a certain telephone number. I tried and the number was engaged. Throughout the rest of that Wednesday I tried phoning again and again and the number was either engaged or nobody answered. It was as if they knew about me and didn't want to part with the money. I just wished they had picked up the phone. I knew that the office closed at 5.30 and so I made one last desperate phone call at 5.15. A young woman answered who sounded as though she knew what she was talking about. I tried hard to sound as if I were in charge of the situation and as if winning £250,000 was the sort of thing that happened every day. My throat was very dry and she asked me to repeat what I had just said. I explained that the amounts on the Wednesday's scratch card were the same as that day's paper and I claimed that sum. There was a long pause and then as politely as she could she suggested I looked at the day on today's paper. "Heaven help me", I cried, "it's Thursday."

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Next:ESL Lesson: Reflections

Author: Alan Townend




English Grammar through Stories (PDF)
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