April 28, 2010 | Spanish
I consider some urgent grammatical issues.
I have been pondering some subjunctive issues and questions in Spanish—and also in English.
For native speakers of English, subjunctive is a tricky thing. Although in Englishes of the past, subjunctive was more common, its relevance for modern English is pretty minimal. You don’t tend to learn about it in school unless you are studying a foreign language, and most native speakers—including me—have difficulty talking about it in English grammar.
So, here’s my first subjunctive issue: in my Dorothy Richmond book, Spanish Verb Tenses, she writes, “In every subjunctive sentence…there is always some aspect of uncertainty—something that is not known or not controllable.” As an example of a subjunctive sentence, she offers, “I hope that you speak Spanish.”
She continues: “The second clause of this sentence is in the subjunctive, because the speaker does not know that you speak Spanish and is not reporting that you do.”
I have seen this kind of thing before. Why would you consider the verb speak subjunctive in English? In Spanish, it is clearly subjunctive (Espero que hables español). But not in English. (At least not 21st-century English. I think this construction, or similar ones at least, cued subjunctive in past eras, but I’m not sure.)
In any case, compare these two sentences:
- I hope that he speaks English.
- I insist that he speak English.
I picked third-person singular so that the subjunctive would be obvious, since indicative and subjunctive forms are the same for most conjugations in English. (Which is another reason people don’t talk much about subjunctive in English.)
The second sentence shows subjunctive. The third-person singular indicative of “to speak” is “speaks,” but here we instead have “speak” because of the influence of the verb “insist.” In the first sentence, however, we use indicative: “speaks.” Both of these sentences would have to be subjunctive in Spanish, but only the second shows subjunctive in English.
My next subjunctive issue concerns literary possibilities rather than grammar. On page 219, same book, Richmond writes: “Emotions often color the truth of a situation and introduce a degree of uncertainty. A sentence that follows the pattern emotion or personal feeling + ‘that’ sets up the need for the subjunctive. Consider the sentence ‘I’m angry that she’s so evil.’ The person’s inherent evilness, while certainly clear and true to the speaker, might not be so evident to others.”
In translating that sentence, I would normally render the verb “is” (from the contraction “she’s”) as subjunctive, in accordance with her explanation. My question is this, though: In the Spanish translation, could a writer use indicative rather than the normally cued subjunctive to make some kind of statement about how his or her assertion of the woman’s evil is unequivocal?
For example, instead of writing, “Estoy enojada que ella sea tan mala” (that’s my translation, and my apologies if it’s not wholly idiomatic), could one make a slightly different point by replacing the subjunctive sea with the indicative es: “Estoy enojada que ella es tan mala”? As in, the woman is absolutely, positively evil, and my opinion about that is just plain truth, and that’s why I’m angry?
Or would indicative just always be wrong, no matter what?
A third subjunctive question: I’m curious about subjunctive theory versus practice: how often do Spanish speakers around the globe actually use subjunctive when they’re supposed to? I ask this in part because, even in the relatively few noticeable cases requiring subjunctive in English, English speakers often go for the indicative. I am pretty sure you are more likely to hear “I must insist that he attends the conference” (indicative) than the grammatically correct “I must insist that he attend the conference” (subjunctive).
For example, here is one of Dorothy Richmond’s many helpful illustrations of subjunctive sentences: Quizá él no te conteste. (Meaning, “Maybe he won’t answer you.”) I wonder what percentage of Spanish speakers would render this as subjunctive. Or is it common in such cases to opt for indicative instead? As in, Quizá él no te contesta. If so, how common?
Finally: I really get a kick out of some of the English-to-Spanish translations I am asked to come up with in Richmond’s grammar exercises. Here’s one: No estamos convencidos de que la luna sea de queso verde.
So, when the occasion calls for it, I will now be equipped to say, “We aren’t convinced that the moon is made of green cheese”!