Lest we seek, we may not find.

A woodcut of the Wife of Bath from Richard Pynson’s 1492 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’.

Had I paid more attention to the minute detail of a book by O F Emerson entitled The History of the English Language given to me by a quite famous Professor of English by the name of Guy Butler who was reputed have have known by heart no fewer than three of Shakepeare’s plays, one of which was Richard II, then this might well have been an off-the-cuff potted history of why we would fail to recognise the subjunctive mood even if it were to zap a splodge of jelly directly between our eyeballs.

Suffice to say that I treasured the book primarily for the style of its writing more than for its content. I was the honoured recipient of the book because the esteemed Professor was astonished beyond measure that I knew what he was talking about when he remarked that I had a very old name (“Wright”). Far be it for me to attempt to outstrip this senior scholar of broad vision. I replied thus, in my best-imagined Chaucerian accent,

In youthe he hadde lerned a good myster;
He was a wel good wrighte, a carpenter.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, The Reeve’s Portrait

In modern English:

In youth he had learned a good trade;
He was a very good wright, a carpenter.

where “wright” would equate to today’s usage of the word “craftsman”.

Here is a definition from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913, 100,000 entries) for those of you who may like proof, or dictionaries, or both:

Wright noun [ Middle English wrighte , writhe , Anglo-Saxon wyrtha , from wyrcean to work. √145. See Work .] One who is engaged in a mechanical or manufacturing business; an artificer; a workman; a manufacturer; …

Were it not for my humble though informed reply, I might not have been rewarded with a book from this man’s extensive shelves. Though I be of “small Latin, and less Greek” (Ben Jonson describing William Shakespeare), I had already in my teenage years developed a fascination for etymology and a fascination for the system of inflections in French and German. If you were blessed as I was at that age with this strange confluence of budding linguistic expertise, Chaucer would have provided hours of fascination, not least because once you got the hang of it, the stories that each of his characters told on their pilgrimage to Canterbury were highly entertaining, if not downright bawdy. Alisoun, the Wyf of Bath, is an intriguing character right from the start:

Gat-tothed was she, ….
In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe;
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath’s Portrait

Oh, what lust and wit await the careful reader! Needless to say, I have just introduced you to the other bit of my name.

It should be quite plain by now that I shall probably never give much of a clue as to why the subjunctive fails to grab our attention. Suppose I were less tangential in my pattern of thought or that I had more stamina? After such a hefty introduction, one ought to expect at least another 4,000 words to follow. Let it not be said that I have have bored you; for if you read my blog as a soporific aid, you ought at least to let me know by way of comment. I strongly suggest that you be frank with me on this matter!

The simple reason these subjunctive forms are hard to spot in English has to do with verb endings, or inflections. Had we kept that little “e” at the end of the verb to denote the subjunctive mood on the third person singular in the present subjunctive (and originally “en” for the third person plural, as in modern-day German), there would be no question as to the existence of the subjunctive because it would look different in print. One theory is that the final “e” on these verb forms was at some stage pronounced, but then stopped being pronounced and therefore no longer needed to be spelt with the final “e”. Similarly, in the indicative mood, we lost the -st and -est endings (“wouldst”, “lovest”), as well as the -th and -eth (“doth”, “doeth”, “maketh”) endings.

This simplified the conjugation of English verbs enormously, something which did not have a parallel development to any great extent in German, French and Portuguese, and no doubt other languages of which I have no meaningful knowledge.

With this simplification, of course, there was a catch: Most verb forms look the same, e.g. conjugation of the present tense indicative of the regular verb “to love”: I love, you love, he/she/it loves, we love, you love, they love. The conjugation of the present tense subjunctive differs from the indicative in the third person singular only: “he loves” in the indicative becomes “he love” in the subjunctive, as in the construction, “I insist that he love me (unconditionally or not at all)”.

English has thus gained the singular distinction of having the most boring verb conjugations of all modern European languages. To its credit though, it does occasionally do some interesting things with the verbs to be, to have, and its auxiliary or modal verbs.

If you are studying English as a foreign language I would recommend that you gain a good understanding of the workings of be, have, and modal verbs in order that you better appreciate the fine architecture which does exist beneath the seeming sea of dull uniformity.  Then you to may well be able to say something like the following with confidence and ease: I really ought not to have begun writing this blog without first having planned a decent conclusion which does not focus solely on grammatical labels for things!

There is a pretty good tutorial on use of the subjunctive with examples at www.englishpage.com, which I hauled out for my one and only and favourite English student who is a Mandarin native. If I were to smile particularly sweetly at her, I am sure she would agree that we have had enormous fun conjugating verbs and learning how to use them correctly in context. I like this tutorial because it gives modern examples which are still used today.

My blog post today is full of verbs – and of course, other parts of speech, as one would expect. I hope you like the way I have coloured all instances of the subjunctive mood in red (together with the pronoun with which the verb agrees).

If I have missed a verb in the subjunctive mood, then so be it!

Should I throw in a “God save the Queen!” for good measure?

(Alisoun, a “wel good wrighte”)

Let it be known that this blog be written in direct response to the WordPress DPChallenge, the Weekly Writing Challenge: I Wish I Were. Okay, that last “be” it may be argued, is not strictly speaking a subjunctive, but I will leave any reader brave enough to have reached the bottom of this page to tell me why. 🙂

19 thoughts on “Lest we seek, we may not find.

Add yours

  1. Like, ouch, eina, eish! Truste me, I did not understand the half of it. Grammatically speaking, I do wish that South Africans were taught, naye, blasted and hammered in, the difference between “lend” and “borrow” – one of my pet hates………to this day, my son still mixes them up – I am sure that it is the Afrikaans who are to blame, as they only have one word for both of these :- “leen”


    1. Knowing the difference in meaning between two related lexical items (words!) and understanding why we say things the way we do (grammar, psychology!) are worlds apart. In my experience, those who have had negative experiences (including boredom) at school during grammar or language lessons do not care much for vocabulary development either. As Pig said in the movie “Babe”, “That’s the way it is.”


  2. Today your blog picked me up and threw me back into class as a 15 year old, listening to my English language teacher. I barely understood then, but I passed my exams, and then forgot all about past present and future and everything else in between. My Czechoslovakian French teacher never got so deeply into the verbs, which could explain why few of us passed our French exams. Such niceties didn’t worry me with Portuguese either as it was most urgent that I could have an intelligible (not necessarily intelligent) conversation with staff, shop keepers, local officials and anyone else who crossed my path. And the same for Spanish, which was mostly based on my (thought to be but wasn’t) almost forgotten Portuguese. My languages are all now so mixed up that I speak and write as I feel without subjugating myself to worry about subjunctives or clauses or tenses. As long as I can say something I’m happy and I hope my listener or reader is too.


    1. I have not yet mastered the use of the subjunctive in Portuguese, but am delighted when I recognise it when I hear or see it. Like you, many people have an intuitive grasp of the intricacies of language and expression and can live life quite happily without being familiar with all the labels grammarians attach to what we say and write! I do not “worry” about these things either, but do like to have the tools – or labels – to be able to describe them.


    1. Glad to hear the article held your interest.
      There are conjugation tables in English, which curiously, omit the subjunctive mood at http://www.reverso.net . The tables are laid out in a manner which will be very familiar to people whose mother tongue is French, German, or Spanish. Here is the link for the conjugation of the English verb “have”: http://conjugator.reverso.net/conjugation-english-verb-have.html This is interesting because it contains numerous examples of the interplay between the various forms of the verbs “be” and “have” in the English verb tense system. A peek into the “architecture” of English verbs! 🙂


    1. Your wishes covered everything, as far as I could tell! Which reminds me of that English saying in keeping with this theme, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” I am interested in the photo at the top of your blog: Is it a piece of tie-dyed cloth?


  3. Allison, I’m sorry to say your delightful piece contained an error that made me cringe. Twice. Concordance des temps: “then this may well have been an off-the-cuff potted history” = it is possible that this *was* an o-t-c p h”. Then “I may not have been rewarded with a book” — same thing: it’s possible I *was* not rewarded. You needed *might have* in both sentences, for the meaning “it was possible it would be, I would not be”.

    And the last sentence really ought to have begun “Had it not been for my humble…”, but that’s more of a quibble.


    1. Quite right, Paul, on the may/might issue. For those who are curious: https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/04/05/may-or-might-whats-the-difference/
      My apologies, too for the ridiculously long time it has taken me to reply. I remember being overworked at the time you made the comment, which, happily, is not the case today!
      Your quibble over “Had it not been for [whatever it was] is valid, but I have left it unedited for other readers to contemplate the sequence of tenses, and what implications this has on meaning. 😉


      1. Thanks for your reply. My argument was way too wordy, however. I’ve since been reminded of the following sentence, which makes the point crystal clear in 11 words: I was in a serious accident and may have been killed!


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