Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fucking the Subjunctive

A few days back, George wrote on I’m Not One to Blog, But… about the origins of the phrase God bless you. Though the accuracy of his history seems to range between “fudged” and “delightfully embellished,” as near as I can tell, the post reminded me of an extensive conversation I once had with Vicky, a now long-time-ago Nexus copy cat, about whether English could entirely drop the subjunctive mood from English.

Though I wasn’t offended by her idea, I responded with two words: “Fuck you.”

She laughed.

For those for whom grammar falls into that gray category of shoulda-kinda-learned (a mental place that often houses the multiplication tables beyond twelve, central African geography and the reason we celebrate Cinco de Mayo), the subjunctive mood is a form that verbs take in English, similar to how verbs have tenses and voices and all that, only it is nearly invisible and undetectable in most speech and writing. Americans typically only learn about it when they start taking foreign language classes because the mood factors into Spanish or French a lot more.

Generally, verbs take the subjunctive in following situations:
  • When wishing (I wish I were taller rather than the indicative I wish I was taller)
  • When stating a condition contrary to fact (If I were taller, then I could see down her shirt.)
  • When someone is commanding, suggesting or recommending (I demand that the leering, tall man leave, rather than I demand that the leering, tall man leaves, as it would be spoken in a more typical sentence.)
Stuff like that. There are others, but I don’t want a grammar lesson to foil my attempt at being interesting. That last form I gave for which I gave an example is the most important here, so don’t forget it. Raise your eyes slightly and re-read it if you feel you have to.

You may have noticed that a quality many forms of the subjunctive have is that they sound like normal sentences with the wrong choice of verb implemented in them. Since the pronoun I is a singular, nominative pronoun, it might seem more correct to use was with it, since the two usually go together. (I was tired. I was running. I was technically a woman until the softball accident.) In fact, saying If I was taller actually doesn’t sound all that incorrect. Anybody listening would understand your meaning so well that it seems one could, in fact, do away with the subjunctive altogether and make everyone’s life more grammatically correct and therefore easier.

This is what Vicky said. And to an extent, I agreed with her.

This silly mood has been rendered a peculiarity in English so much so that it’s all but banished to the back of grammar textbooks, where teachers can’t get to it in the allotted duration of a school year. However, even if people are less and less conscious of how and why it works, they will still use it. For whatever reason, I argued to Vicky, so many of English’s little verbal groups put their verbs in the subjunctive. My old writing teacher called them “set phrases.” I call them “word buddies” or “gangs of words.” They’re little chunks of language that, for whatever reason, persist over time in a certain sequence. Wikipedia offers the following as examples:
  • if need be
  • so be it
  • be that as it may
  • far be it from me
  • truth be told
All of these are phrases any English speaker should be familiar with because they’re spoken so often that they’re ingrained into our brains. As we speak, these centuries-old synapses fire from our brains into our tongues and then out comes these word buddies — staid but in perfectly grammatical subjunctive mood. I’d imagine most people never stop and think about how awkward these phrases sound if the listener doesn’t understand the subjunctive mood. Seriously? “If need be”? Why not “If need is”? Why would that verb even be in that sentence without a good reason?

The best examples of word buddies, however, has to be the jussive subjunctive — the form of it used when the speaker is invoking a supernatural power. God bless you, for example. You’re not saying “Hey, God! Go bless that guy!” or “God, bless him.” You’re saying “May God bless you,” only the “may” gets dropped. (Apparently people are too busy ordering around God’s benevolence to be polite. Nice one, Christians.) Or, you know, there’s also “fuck you.”

What’s that? Oh. Fuck you. You. Fuck you.

Rude, yes. But grammatically correct and understandable when you consider that that all-too-common phrase is spoken in the subjunctive.

Think about it. You’ve doubtlessly said it before. You may hear it on an almost daily basis, depending on what kind of asshole you are. But when you look at the phrase fuck you grammatically, it’s not immediately clear what sentiment the phrase is trying to express — you know, aside from hatred. I doubt the desired meaning is Fuck yourself, as that insult exists in its own right. Why would the self get dropped? It seems too important to be chopped off the end. And I don’t think you’re saying “I’m going to fuck you,” because that’s not necessarily insulting, depending on how and to whom it is spoken. Despite its ambiguity, however, fuck you always manages to convey the right emotion. Noting that fuck you and bless you are structured similarly and used in practically identical grammatical contexts — if opposite social contexts — it seems reasonable to conclude that the blasphemous one is another example of the jussive subjunctive mood.

“No! God doesn’t fuck people!” you may say.

That’s true. With the exception of Mary, God stays out of mortal business. Knowing, however, that the rest of those musty word buddies — bethatasitmay, and all those other set phrases that might as well be one word, given how we use them — originate from an older period of English in which the subjunctive was commonplace, think about the superstitions people back then had. About fucking. And supernatural entities.

That’s right. The Devil fucks you.

It seems plausible to me that far from being a command or a request, fuck you is actually a invocation of the Devil or his underlings to fly into you bedroom and ravage your privates in your sleep. Literally, fuck you could be May the Devil savage you in your sleep. And that, I have to admit, is probably the worst curse I could ever think to hurl at somebody.

Thus, grammar once again saves the day, by proving that an often-used insult is an entirely proper construction with a rich social history, that a rarely used and little understood aspect of English is alive and well on the lips of drivers throughout southern California, and that you’ve probably invoked engorged demons into the lives of your enemies.

Fuck you. Bless you. It’s all the same. Thank grammar!

And sleep with you knees together tonight.

5 comments:

  1. For safety's sake, sleep face up, too. God and/or the Devil might not discriminate between the last two words of your trifecta.

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  2. I remember when the subjunctive was explained to us by a high school french teacher, I was struck by the poetry of the description: a mood of wishes, hopes, and possibilities, which may or may not be fulfilled.

    In other news, I think this is one of your more entertaining to date.

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  3. bonnie6:13 PM

    this is great.

    now when someone says fuck you to me, i'll congratulate them on such proper usage of the subjunctive mood, which some might say is a lost art.

    and then i'll throw up all over them.

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  4. That was a glorious exploration of one of the more satisfying phrases to utter.

    If one were to find oneself in a philosophical verbal word war where less is more, the spat would be something like:

    "Fuck you."
    "God bless."

    And the war would be over. Far be it from me to claim it as so, though.

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  5. suffice it to say...that's all i got.

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