What's in a Word | All Blogs

In the mood …

By Debra Dobbins

OK. I’ll fess up. Early this morning I didn’t get the joke in this cartoon. I’d like to blame my cluelessness on a lack of coffee, but, no, there was more to it: I clearly needed to review the subjunctive mood in English. So, I did — learning more than most people probably wish to know, but that predicament has not deterred me from explaining arcane matters in the past.

For starters, “mood” in its grammatical sense means the quality of a verb that expresses a writer’s attitude toward a subject. The English language has both major and minor moods. Being in a charitable (ahem) mood, I will concede that it is enough torture for one day to explain only the major ones: indicative, imperative and subjunctive.

When a writer makes factual statements or poses questions, the writer is using the indicative mood. Much of the writing in The Daily Sentinel is in the indicative mood, since news articles relay many facts.

In the imperative mood, a command is given, as in “Give me the wine and nobody will get hurt.”

The subjunctive mood is used to “express supposition, desire, hypothesis, possibility, etc., rather than to state an actual fact,” according to Webster’s. My favorite example of the subjunctive mood comes from the beloved play, “Fiddler on the Roof,” when Tevye, the long-suffering father of five daughters, sings the song, “If I Were a Rich Man,” not “If I Was a Rich Man.’

While I was familiar with that use of the subjunctive mood, I must have never learned that the subjunctive mood often crops up in subordinate clauses and, in particular, subordinate clauses starting with the word “that.” (As another charitable act, I’ll save the explanation of subordinate clauses for another day.)

In the cartoon, “that” is missing in the subordinate clauses in both sentences and therein lies the joke. With apologies to Tom Thaves, here’s a revised version:



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