Grammarly doesn’t understand the subjunctive

A little while ago, someone on Twitter shared a link to a Grammarly blog post on the subjunctive, which I foolishly clicked on. This is not the first time that I’ve talked about Grammarly, and if you read my earlier post it probably won’t surprise you that nobody over there understands what the subjunctive is. Here’s how the blog post starts out:

The subjunctive mood sounds complex at first (who knew that verbs have moods?). The subjunctive is usually the third-person form of the verb with the ‑s dropped. For example, when using the verb to be in the subjunctive, the present tense is be, and the past tense is were.

The opening sentence really irks me. Who knew about verb moods? Is that a serious question? I knew. Every person who has received a competent education in language analysis knows. It’s news to you because you’re not a linguist. You’re shilling a spell checker.

Now, you might think I’m being harsh on a little joke. But it’s not a joke. The author of this post is actually so mystified by the concept of verb mood that she never explains what it is. She just mentions the term “mood”, makes light of her own ignorance on the subject, and then blindly stumbles onward. If she had actually provided some form of definition to follow up this attempt at humour, then I probably would let it pass.

To make things worse, this paragraph is not even internally consistent. The author gives one rule for forming the subjunctive, then provides, as her sole example, an exception to the rule! If her rule worked (“remove the -s from the third person form”), then the subjunctive of be would be i, since we remove the -s from is. That’s obviously wrong. Rather than talking about removing an -s, it would have made more sense to say it’s the infinitive without the to. That’s a better generalization.

Honestly, it’s amazing you can get so much wrong, in such a small amount of space. A three sentence introductory paragraph that does far more harm than good.

Let’s give Grammarly a hand, and explain what moods are.

The mood of a verb tells you something about the speaker’s attitude or feelings (their “mood”, if you will). The default mood for a sentence is the indicative, where the speaker is putting forth a statement as true. Another mood is the imperative, when the speaker is issuing commands or giving instructions. The subjunctive is a mood related to the speaker’s wishes, desires, or expectations. The subjunctive fits into a broader category of “irrealis“, which includes moods used for hypothetical or imagined contexts.

Mood should be distinguished from two other closely related concepts: tense and aspect. The tense of a verb tells you at what time an activity happens. The classic three tenses are past, present, and future, though many others exist too. The aspect of a verb tells you something about how an event unfolded over time. Two typical aspects are perfective (activity is completed) and imperfective (activity is incomplete).

To be fair, it can be difficult to disentangle these three concepts. They aren’t always cleanly divided up in a language, and they overlap and intersect in different ways. Subjunctive verbs, for example, may look identical to past-tense verbs, even when they do not carry a past-tense interpretation, e.g. “I wish I were taller” is not about me being taller in the past. (Note that “were” also doesn’t follow the rule of removing the third person -s)

However, just because something is complicated, it doesn’t mean you get a free pass to ignore it. You have to go learn about it. Especially if you’re presenting yourself as an expert on this subject.

The subjunctive is usually used with verbs like desire, ask, and require, where whatever is desired or asked or require may not actually be done. If you’re unsure whether you should use the subjunctive or not, check to see if your sentence has this structure.

I don’t really know what this means: “check to see if your sentence has this structure”. What structure? No examples of any structures were given, just a few examples of verbs. Individual verbs don’t count as “structures”.

Let’s look at a few examples sentences using the verbs suggested by Grammarly.

  • The travellers ask permission be granted. (not *permission is granted)
  • Officials request the diplomat leave the country. (not *the diplomat leaves)
  • The rules require that the player forfeit the game. (not *the player forfeits)

First of all, it’s important point out which verb is in the subjunctive. Grammarly’s explanation makes it seem as though the subjunctive applies to the verbs ask, require, request etc. However, the subjunctive verb is actually the one in the second clause (be, leave, forfeit). The Grammarly blog brings up this issue indirectly by putting subjunctives in bold type in all the example sentences. However, I feel like this is something that should have been part of the body of the blog post, and not something left for readers to infer on their own.

More to the point though, you don’t need to use the subjunctive in any of these cases just because a particular verb is in the main clause. You could replace each of them with an infinitival:

  • The travellers ask for permission to be granted
  • Officials request for the diplomat to leave
  • The rules require the player to forfeit the game

Personally, I find the infinitives sound more natural, and they are probably what I would use in most cases (actually I prefer that sentence about the diplomat in the subjunctive, but that’s just my opinion).

The subjunctive mood also comes into play with conditionals. In these cases, the form of the verb to be is were. These are sentences in which you’re expressing a wish, hope, or fantasy. For example:

  1. I wish I were tall enough to ride the roller coaster.
  2. If I were a bird, I would fly far away from here.

That first example sentence given by Grammarly is not a conditional. It’s an expression of desire. It could become a conditional with a slight rephrasing: “Were I tall enough, I would ride the roller coaster”.

The second example is something called a counter-factual. Conditionals and counter-factuals can both have the same general structure of “if X then Y”, but the semantics are very different. A conditional sets up a cause-and-effect relation between X and Y. In a counter-factual, X is known to be false, and Y is a conjecture about how things might be if X were actually true.

For example, “if it’s raining, then I’ll bring an umbrella” is a conditional. When someone says this, they don’t know the truth of the first part – they don’t know if it really is raining or not – but their future behaviour depends on this. If it turns out to be true, then they’ll bring an umbrella. If it turns out to be false, they won’t bring one.

The Grammarly example of “If I were a bird then I would fly away” is not a conditional this sense. We know for certain that the if-clause is false. The writer is not a bird (unless a bird pecking at a keyboard is the best explanation for how this handbook was written). This sentence is a counter-factual. It talks about what the world would be like, given a different set of circumstances.

In some descriptions of English, counter-factuals are grouped into the same category as conditionals. In other descriptions they are kept more distinct. The terminology is slippery, but Grammarly makes no attempt at all to try and navigate this terrain delicately. It just bulldozes through dropping random technical terms left and right.

Maybe the blog author isn’t entirely at fault. She probably got her information from the Grammarly handbook, so we can’t blame her for having bad source material. When I first wrote about the quality of the handbook back in the summer, Grammarly actually contacted me on Twitter to tell me that I had motivated them to update their handbook.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it was enough motivation, because nothing’s changed yet. Let’s go have a look at their entry on the subjunctive.

The subjunctive is usually the third-person form of the verb with the ‑s dropped. When using the verb “to be” in the subjunctive, the present tense is “be”, and the past tense is “were”.

This is almost verbatim to what appeared in the blog post’s introductory sentence. The only difference is that the handbook makes it more clear that “to be” is an exceptional form. It also lacks the “joke” about verb moods.

Still, I find this a jarring way to start the handbook entry. The concept of the subjunctive hasn’t even been introduced, and we’re already talking about how the morphology works. It’s like they assume the reader basically already know what the subjunctive is, and is only looking for a reminder. A better approach is to assume the reader knows little or nothing about the subjunctive, then work from the ground up. Advanced readers can skip ahead if they want.

The subjunctive is used after certain expressions which imply a good or bad quality, or an imperative, and which create a strong mood.

I think this should have been introduction, not the second paragraph. It’s a much better way to lead into the topic. Even still, this is far too vague to be useful.

What is an “expression”? The closest term I can think of is “fixed expression” (aka “idioms”), but surely that has nothing do with the subjunctive. It is a regular verb mood that can be used quite flexibly with many verbs. I also can’t figure out what is meant by “imply a good or bad quality”. My best guess is that the author is trying to talk about sentences that express an opinion, but I’m not entirely sure. The term “strong mood” is also used here, but this is confusing because “mood” actually is an appropriate technical term to use in this context, but it’s obviously not being used in that technical sense here.

Why? Why even bother to write this? I’ve barely learned anything so far, and I can’t take what I learned here elsewhere because the terminology is so imprecise and unconventional. Grammarly claims to have the world’s leading linguists, but this handbook entry wouldn’t get a passing grade in an undergraduate syntax course.

The claim that the subjunctive comes after imperatives is also pretty suspicious. The kinds of verbs that are used with the subjunctive are not the kind that make good imperatives:

  • ??Require the player forfeit!
  • ??Demand the diplomat leave!
  • ??Hope you were taller!
  • *Desire you were here!
  • Ask permission be granted! (this one’s OK I guess)

There are a few examples that I can think of where it looks like an imperative is followed by a subjunctive:

  • Wish you were here!
  • May your lives be happy together!
  • May the force be with you!
  • Let there be light!

The “wish” case is not an imperative, as it’s not a command to the reader to wish for something. The missing pronoun in this case is “I” (or “we”), not “you”. It means “I/we wish you were here”. Imagine getting a postcard from your friend on vacation where this was actually intended as a second-person imperative: “You wish you were here!”. How sarcastic is that?

The “may” and “let” cases are also not quite imperatives, because they are also not commands to anyone. These are examples of what might be called “optatives“. The optative is quite similar to the subjunctive, because it’s an expression of desire, but not entirely identical.

So even if imperative+subjunctive does work sometimes, it’s not common. The Grammarly Handbook really needs to be more clear that it’s a marginal pattern, and identify the cases that work specifically. Honestly, it would have been better to not even mention this at all, rather than print misinformation.

The subjunctive verb often comes after an expression which can be followed by the word that (e.g. it is best that, and it is essential that).

Here’s this mysterious term “expression” again. This sentence immediately follows the one I quoted above, so there’s no way I missed something in between. Does “expression” mean “independent clause”? It kind of sounds like that here. But surely the author doesn’t think that ALL independent clauses ending with ‘that’ are followed by a subjunctive. How about a phrase like “I already told you that…” or “You can see that…”. These definitely don’t take subjunctives. Compare:

  • I wish (that) I were taller than my brother.
  • *I already told you that I were taller than my brother.
  • *You can see that I were taller than my brother.

There is a basic concept that seems to be lacking with Grammarly’s writers: when you make a claim about language, you should test that claim. Think about possible sentences that follow your rule, and see if they make sense. If they don’t (and I just showed that they don’t), then you need to change your rule to fit more squarely with the reality of English.

I find it very frustrating to see amateur work like this gain such wide recognition. Grammarly claims that over 600 companies use their product, with four million registered users. More than 90,000 people follow their Twitter account. That includes well-known language experts like Ben Zimmer, Peter Sokolowski, and Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl). Have they read the handbook?

It’s a good thing Grammarly is free, because you shouldn’t be paying for this quality of linguistic analysis.



Filed under Linguistics

3 responses to “Grammarly doesn’t understand the subjunctive

  1. You’ve enlightened me! Thanks for this post!


  2. Thank you for your criticisms that, I must say, help the readers and writers to develop an understanding of the mechanics of English language. A post like this one truly helps.


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