The Wonderful World of Verbs

By: Shneur Agronin  |  February 20, 2024

By Shneur Agronin, Staff Writer

Were I to begin my conversations when meeting new people with the question, “Have you ever heard of the subjunctive mood?” I’d likely find myself friendless. Yet, setting aside the gross breach of social norms, allow me this opportunity to explain why I often feel a temptation to ask this question – especially to speakers of Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and many other languages which prominently feature this incredible component of grammar. Nevertheless, even those who only speak English may come to appreciate the subjunctive mood and what it tells us about our brilliant minds by the end of this article. In fact, you use the subjunctive mood almost certainly every day and understand how it works without any conscious mental effort. You probably didn’t even realize that the very first sentence of this article contains it. Soon enough, you’ll understand just how amazing our brains are in their abilities to express extremely subtle yet critical nuances effortlessly. 

Defined simply, the subjunctive mood is a class of verbs which express opinions, desires, emotions, or hypothetical actions which may or may not take place. As described above, the Romance languages inherited it from Latin, in which nearly every verb possesses a distinct subjunctive form. Consider the following sentence: I want you to come to my party. In English, we use the infinitive (or unmodified) form of the verb “come” to express this idea; in other words, nothing fancy. Now, let’s try saying the same thing in Spanish: Quiero que vengas a mi fiesta. “Vengas” is the subjunctive form of the verb “vienes,” meaning “you come.” If you speak Spanish, saying “Quiero que vienes a mi fiesta” sounds quite incorrect, but before reading this article, you may never have understood why. Here’s another example: Were I to have a fork, I’d eat the cake. In English, we use the subjunctive form of the verb “was” (which we normally use with the pronoun “I” in the past tense) to describe a hypothetical scenario. In Spanish, one does the same: Si tuviera/tuviese un tenedor, comería el pastel. Instead of saying “tuve” or “tenía(the “standard” forms of “had”), one says tuviera/tuviese, the past-tense subjunctive form. Reread the first sentence of this article. Do you see now how your brain understood the subjunctive mood without a second thought? 

At this point, you might be thinking: How did I get this far into an article about an obscure grammatical concept without falling asleep? Well, if you find grammar as fascinating as I do, you may have already begun to understand just how amazing the subjunctive mood is. In essence, our brains unconsciously differentiate between concretely observed actions and those in the hypothetical. They distinguish verbs modified by opinions and desires from those which have taken, are taking, or will take place with assumed certainty. You effectively ask and answer numerous questions such as, “Am I expressing a feeling about this? Will or did this happen? Do I want this to occur and am I forming an opinion about something that may or may not occur?” within a fraction of a second and convey these questions’ answers with a simple shift from “was” to “were.” 

In English, we most often express actions with a progressive tense. For example, compare “I’m eating” to “I eat.” The first sentence expresses an ongoing, current action, while the latter only practically describes a habitual action – “I eat fish for lunch and chicken for dinner most of the time” (as most of us who eat in the Caf daily can relate to). English also features perfect and past-perfect participles, such as “I have eaten,” “I had eaten,” “I will have eaten,” “I will have been eating,” and many, many others. But, do all languages work similarly? 

While some languages claim even more verb tenses, moods, and aspects than English (such as most of the Romance languages), some of them don’t even feature any tenses or conjugations at all. As described above, English contorts and modifies the verb “eat” in over twenty ways to reflect changes in a verb phrase. Compare this with the Mandarin Chinese verb chi, meaning “eat.” While one does generally need to clarify the timing of a verb in Mandarin Chinese through the use of time-based words and adverbs (such as “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” “already,” etc.), the word chi will always be chi no matter if one had been, will be, should have been, or will have been eating. Compare Mandarin’s simplicity to the nightmare of the Georgian verb, which one can modify based on four classes, over ten tenses, four moods, and countless irregularities and exceptions. Georgian verbs are so complex that linguists can’t even classify them based on the above terms and instead use a separate organizational device called a “screeve” (which includes six forms of each verb modified for pronouns and other factors) just to convey the basic details of Georgian verbs. 

Whether or not you’ve made it to the final paragraph of this article without having nodded off somewhere in the middle, I hope to prove that our ability to effortlessly express ourselves using the considerably complex grammars of our languages is nothing short of miraculous. The next time you enjoy a conversation with a friend, take a moment to think about the thousands of precise calculations and considerations your brain makes in order to express even the most basic thoughts.