Burgess Laughlin

What is a "mood"?

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Over the years, I have had several questions about one of the most puzzling aspects of English grammar. Following are my answers. I am confident of some, but not all.

WHAT IS A MOOD? A mood is a grammatical form that shows a relationship between the writer's mind and external reality.

IN ENGLISH, WHAT ARE THE MOODS? The indicative mood, which is the most frequently used mood, points out something the writer believes is a fact of reality. Examples are:

- "Laptop computers are difficult to repair."

- "Why does that dog cower?"

The imperative mood (giving commands) is a statement made by a writer to another person -- a statement about what the writer expects that other person to do, without further discussion and without fail. The implication is that the person writing has authority to expect obedience or else punishment will follow. Examples are:

- "Lighten up -- you take life too seriously."

- "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

- "Earth, stand still!"

The subjunctive mood shows the speaker saying something he knows isn't a fact of external reality but it could be or should be. Examples are:

- "If only the Founding Fathers of the U. S. had been as consistent in their support of rights as Objectivists are, slavery would have been abolished soon after the American Revolution."

- "He said, 'If I were rich, I would move to Irvine, California'."

The infinitive mood (if it truly is a "mood") is a verb form that shows the writer is considering an action as separate from any particular circumstance. Examples are:

- "To think is distinctively human."

- "To be taxed is unjust."

CONCLUSION. Knowing moods in English grammar allows a writer to be more precisely objective in his writing by revealing, in his view, the relationship between his consciousness and the rest of reality.

PARTING QUESTION. Ancient Greek has an optative mood, that is, certain inflected forms of verbs showing that the writer is expressing a wish. ("Optative" comes from the Latin verb optare, which means "to wish.") Apparently the English subjunctive mood covers wishes.

Do other languages use moods not found in English?

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"Mood" is an alteration of "mode", from Latin modus. It is joined with "tense", "aspect" and "voice" as the four fundamental paradigmatic groupings of verb inflection. As a phenomenon of languages, it tends to be used arbitrarily according to whatever local tradition if any may prevail. My position is that mood is best seen as "anything that is not tense or aspect; including voice is dubious". Tense and aspect refers to the structure of events, i.e. time reference and duration, time sequencing, and event boundaries. Mood pertains to verb inflection, so English has no interrogative mood (a special verb forms that indicate that the sentence is a question), but some languages do. Classical Arabic (which has more verb paradigms that it knows what to do with) has an "energetic mood" that is used to strongly assert a belief as well as a jussive (whose use is beyond my grasp of Arabic). There are bazillions of moods found across languages (that is an informal estimate). Shona (Zimbabwe) has quite a number of different "moods" for verb inflection, including expressions of doubt, reluctance, accidentalness, going and doing, inevitability, getting up early to do something, politeness, acting upon arriving....

There is relatively little scientific reason to distinguish moods in English: the most compelling example is the distinction between the indicative "was" and subjunctive "were", or indicative "are" and imperative "be", distinctions that only exist for the verb "be". (There is a quirk about the subjunctive that I'll mention). In Ancient Greek and Latin (as well as Sanskrit, though this probably had little influence on western taxonomy), mood distinctions were more thorough-going. Because of this, we have retained the terminology of Latin grammatical analysis and it is applied to those forms that seem to express the same things as infinitives, imperatives, indicatives and subjunctives of Latin.

Usually, when the subject is 3rd person singular non-past, the verb is inflected with -s, so "John eatss figs", but in embedded clauses under certain verbs such as "suggest", "propose" the verb may be in its basic bare form, e.g. "I suggest that John eat figs", which differs minimally in form and meaning from "I suggest that John eats figs". This has caused some people to say that we have a more robust subjunctive mode in English; however, it is sometimes proposed that the former is a reduction of "I suggest that John should eat figs" (which means the same thing), where the verb is in the basic uninflected form after the auxiliary should following the general rule.

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The subjunctive mood is interesting.

In all of the English courses I ever took, we were never taught anything about the subjunctive mood. (Or indeed any moods.) This isn't surprising, since in the schools I went to, English grammar was to a great extent neglected. (For example, the only time I ever diagrammed sentences in school was in the 5th grade.)

I first learned about the subjunctive mood when I was studying German on my own in junior high school. That motivated me to ask if there was a similar concept in English, and to learn something about it. (Today I don't remember very much German, but I know much more about English grammar because of having studied German.)

The subjunctive mood seems to be comparatively little used in English; perhaps it was more used in the past. Here is a snippet of what H. W. Fowler has to say about the subjunctive mood, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage - First Edition, 1926:

About the subjunctive,... the important general facts are: (1) that it is moribund except in a few easily specified uses;... (4) that subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.

An example of a poetic revival:

When I ask her if she love me  (prose loves).

An antiquated survival:

If this analysis be correct... (normal is).

Fowler has quite a lot to say about the subjunctive mood, and makes it clear that there are (or at least were) many forms of it that we don't often see today.

Patricia O'Conner in Woe is I, 1996, states some simple rules about using the form of the subjunctive in which were is used instead of the indicative was. In particular, the subjunctive is used when "if" is followed by a statement which is contrary to fact:

If I were king, no one would pay retail. (I'm not king.)

But if the statement is true, or if it might be true, then the indicative is used instead:

If I was rude, I apologize. (I might have been rude.)

So one uses the subjunctive mood when postulating something that is not true:

If I were a cat, I'd eat mice. (I'm not a cat :) .)

But one uses the indicative mood when talking about something that might be true:

If that was the train, we missed it. (That might have been the train.)

That principle makes it easy to decide whether the subjunctive mood is appropriate in this common case.

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The optative mood is less common than the subjunctive in Attic Greek, but they are both aspects of the same mood, what one might call hypothetical assertion, or in a weaker sense, a kind of contingent likelihood.

The optative is the stronger of the two in this respect. It seems to say, “I wish it would come to pass” or “If only it would come to pass.” The hero Odysseus might have been in this "mood" while standing upon some distant seashore: “Oh, if only the gods would come to my aid!” It seems to indicate that the possibility of the action coming to pass is quite remote. (There may be other uses as well, but I am not familiar with them.)

The subjunctive is more varied. It can mean "should", as in: “Let us now go on our way.” Here the speaker recognizes that we might not go on our way, so he has merely suggested that we should go. Also, the subjunctive can indicate some purpose that one hopes to achieve, as in: “I came here that I may learn more,” (or simply, “I came here hoping to learn more.”) Perhaps the most common use of the subjunctive is to offer a hypothetical alternative, as in: “If I were king, I'd rule well.” Surely one could find several other meanings along this same theme.

It would be very difficult to ascertain these subtleties by surveying Greek from a lexicon. Experts certainly struggle with them, partly because of the vast interactions that occur between sentence elements in Attic, the details of which I will kindly spare you -- would that I could even remember them all! (How's that for a subjunctive!)

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