Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: subjunctive mood

You don’t know what you don’t know

There’s a deep meaning in that short statement, but if you’ve never heard it before it probably sounds like childish babbling. Let me unpack it for you. What this statement tells me is that if I don’t know something, I don’t even know that there is a gap in my knowledge.

Like the time when I was learning French grammar and we got to the subjunctive mood. It made no sense to me, there is nothing like it in English but it seemed terribly important in French. My head hurt for weeks as I struggled to grasp the significance of this foreign way of speech. One day the fog and the cobwebs disappeared from my brain, at least from one little corner of my brain, and I understood the subjunctive mood.

And I realized that it was not foreign to English. I’d been hearing it, reading it, using it most of my life since I learned to speak, without knowing it. Every tine I said “Have a good day,” or “If I were in your shoes,” I was using the subjunctive. The Bible is stuffed with examples, from the third verse of the Bible when God said “Let there be light,” to the Lord’s prayer, which begins with “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It is a means of expressing a wish. Back in Genesis, whenever God expressed a wish it instantly became reality.

There is a difference in the way dogs and cats communicate. When a dog wags his tail, he’s saying “Let’s be friends.” When a cat’s tail makes similar motions, she is getting ready to pounce on something. Therein lies the potential of a lifelong crisis of communication.

Even a simple word like college can be the source of miscommunication. When people in the US speak of a college education, they mean what we in Canada call a university education. In Canada a college provides post-secondary vocational or general education that does not lead to a degree. And in France, where the word originated, college is middle school, coming between elementary school and the lycée, or high school.

In our own country we assume that everyone else has the same set of references for understanding words, gestures and actions that we do. When people of a different background react to our words or actions in unexpected ways, we tend to think they are a bit daft. They probably think the same of us.

Most likely the real problem is that we don’t know that we don’t know. If we can open our minds to that thought, we can receive new information to stretch our minds and make us better able to understand other people.

Peace and joy in the subjunctive mood

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, is one of the oldest English Christmas carols, going back at least 500 years.  Not many people sing it today because of scruples about “Ye Merry Gentlemen.”  Those words conjure up a picture of old English gentlemen at their ease, their merriment fuelled by great flagons of wine.

Except that is not what the words mean.  For starters, there should be a comma between “Merry” and “Gentlemen.”  I left it out in the first paragraph for the sake of making the point that most people are not aware that it is there.

One of the gifts my wife received this Christmas was a book recounting the histories of popular English Christmas songs.  In telling the history of God Rest Ye Merry, the writer spends much time expounding on the original meanings of rest and merry (peace and joy), he even mentions the comma, yet completely misses the fact that these words are in the subjunctive mood.  The writer is American, I would like to think that an English writer (i.e., one from England) would have done better, but I’m not sure if they teach grammar any better than Americans do.

Finding a grammar book that has much to say about the subjunctive mood is difficult.  Mostly they say that it doesn’t really exist in English anymore.  Yet it does; the text book writers are just trying to weasel out of trying to explain it.

So I am going to bravely attempt to go where the text book writers dare not go.  First off, let’s deal with that word “mood.”  It has nothing to do with a person’s emotional state; if it were written “mode,” as it is in French, and should be in English, we wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble understanding it.  The indicative mood describes actions that are really happening, have happened or will happen.  The subjunctive mood describes actions that one wishes would happen.  It deals with possibility and non-reality – not in the sense of fantasy, but in the sense that we don’t know if the thing spoken of is happening or will happen.

Phrases in the subjunctive mood usually begin with “may” or “let,” though sometimes these words are omitted.  When we say to someone, “(May) God bless you,” we are not stating that we know it to be a fact that God is blessing, or will bless, the person to whom we are speaking, we are saying that we wish for it to be so.  Likewise, all the common greetings in English are in the subjunctive mood: Happy Birthday; Merry Christmas; Happy New Year; hello; good-bye.  Good-bye is a contraction of “(May) God be with ye,” in which the subjunctive construction is clear.

The subjunctive mood is often used in prayers.  Commanding God to do what we wish is not proper, but expressing our desires for our own needs and the needs of others is entirely appropriate.  The Lord’s Prayer begins with three subjunctive phrases: “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Another way of detecting the subjunctive mood is the use of an unexpected form of the verb.  “Be” and “were” are often found in subjunctive phrases: “It is required that applicants be over eighteen,” “If I were in your shoes. . . .”
The subjunctive is used in formal forms of speech: “I move that nominations cease.”  Some common expressions use the subjunctive: “Come what may;” “Be that as it may;” “As it were;” “If only he were here.”

We can misunderstand some Bible verses if we do not recognize the subjunctive.  The apostle Paul told Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth” (1 Timothy 4:12).  He is not telling Timothy to take forcible measures against anyone who would not show him proper respect, but expressing his desire that Timothy would not encounter any opposition because of his young age.

James 6:14 is another: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”  The “let” in this verse is not an expression of permission but an urgent wish that the sick person would ask the elders to pray for him.  The preceding verses echo this form of speech: “let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay” (verse 12, this is pretty much a command); and “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (verse 13).

A recent Sunday School lesson ended with these words: “May we find life in believing God’s plan for our salvation, sustenance, and security.”  I’m not sure if the person writing this knew it was subjunctive, yet the form is familiar enough that he used it correctly.

Going back to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “rest” could be replaced by “peace” and “merry” by “joy” and the words rephrased to “May peace and joy be unto ye, gentlemen.”  That is still subjunctive, though much less poetic, but perhaps more understandable to modern ears.  Perhaps if we better understood the words we could sing the song next Christmas.

Language Difficulties in the AV

After four centuries the 1611 translation is still unmatched as the purest expression of the Word of God and as the greatest literary masterwork in the English language.  There have been a few shifts in meaning and usage over the years, but they are not many and not difficult to comprehend.  Here are a few points that some people have difficulty with.

Cattle – domestic livestock of any kind.  Sheep and goats were called small cattle.  What we call cattle today were known as large cattle.
Communicate – to share, to give
Conversation – a person’s manner of living.
Conversant among – living among
Corn – grain of any kind.
To let – to hinder or prevent.
Meat – food of any kind.
Offense, offend – translations of the noun and verb forms of Greek skandalos – a stumbling block, to cause to stumble.
Ouches – sockets in which precious stone are set.
Outlandish – foreign.
Pottage – a broth (because it was made in a pot.
Privy – secret.
Privy to – to know what is secret.
Schoolmaster – translation of Greek pedagogos – originally a slave used to protect children on their way to school, and a disciplinarian to make sure they did go to school.  In English usage the headmaster of a school supervised and disciplined the students.  It does not mean a teacher.
Seethe – boil.
To wit – to know. wot and wist are past tense forms.

Thee, thou, thy, thine – second person singular pronouns, no longer used in current English, having been replaced by the second person plural forms: You, ye, your and yours.
– These singular pronouns were used when addressing one person.  The plural forms, You, ye, your and yours were also generally used as a form of respect when addressing a person of higher rank.  The use by Jesus of the singular pronouns in the Lord’s prayer is an invitation to address God in a personal, intimate manner, as a child who has no doubt of a father’s love.
– Verses such as 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit dwelleth in you?” refer to the church.  Ye and you are plural, referring to many, temple is singular (the temple).  The meaning is the same as in Romans 12:5: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.”

The subjunctive mood – Educators say there is no such thing in English and hence refuse to teach it.  Nevertheless, we use it all the time, whether we know it or not.  When we say to a brother or sister in Christ, “May God bless you!” we are using the subjunctive mood.  When we say, “If I were in your shoes . . . “ we are using the subjunctive.
– The subjunctive mood can be best described as an expression of non-reality.  Not unreality, as in something that is impossible, but non-reality as in something that is not presently true, but could be.  In many cases it is an expression that we wish it to be true, as when say “May God bless you” to a brother or sister in the faith.  We cannot make it so, but we wish it to be so.
– Expressions of the subjunctive mood often begin with may or let, but not always.  The first three clauses of the Lord’s prayer, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven, are all subjunctive.  There is not abundant evidence of God’s will being done on earth, but yet it is our ardent desire that it should be so.
– Sometimes the subjunctive mood is virtually the same as the imperative, as when Pilate was faced with a howling mob, shouting “Let him be crucified!”  (Matthew 27:22 & 23).
– “Let no man despise thy youth” (1 Timothy 4:12) is an admonition to Timothy to conduct himself in such a way that no one would have cause to find fault with him because of his youth.

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