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Subjunctivity is subjective

On a recent trip, as my plane descended, I heard a familiar announcement: "As we prepare for landing, it is important that your seatbacks and tray tables are in their locked and upright positions."

Hmm, I thought. Shouldn't that have been in the subjunctive? "It is important that your seatbacks and tray tables be in their locked and upright positions."

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Perhaps everyone isn't all locked and upright - maybe that doofus in 17C is still reclining to the max and dozing. But it is still important that seatbacks and tray tables be locked and upright. That the goal has not been achieved makes it no less worth striving for, and the subjunctive is just perfect for covering this disparity.

"The Columbia Guide to Standard American English" observes, "It has long been conventional to observe that the ... subjunctive is fast disappearing from English, and the statement is partly true."

What exactly is the subjunctive? Well, it's a mood. Just as people have their moods - good, bad, sunny, gloomy, cranky - so do verbs. They just have different ones: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative.

As the Columbia Guide explains, "An indicative verb is one that makes a factual or actual statement, as contrasted with a verb in the subjunctive mood, which makes a doubtful, conditional, or hypothetical statement or one contrary to fact or in some sense subordinate to another statement."

This may sound complex, but it refers to distinctions we make all the time. The indicative mood is where we live: "I generally get home by 5." If we say, "It is important that he get home at 5," that "he get" is a subjunctive. If we say, "Get home by 5, or else," we've moved into the imperative mode - the language of direct command.

The argument against the subjunctive is that it's weak, and that an imperative verb is more forceful: "Get home at 5." But imperative can be imperious, and a subjunctive can be a clear but impersonal way of articulating a standard without getting in anyone's face.

For instance, the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle sets forth its rules for what may or may not be hung from its rafters: "It is imperative that your banners (size and placement) be approved in advance of your show."

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For more cosmic examples: It is important that we overcome our addiction to oil. It is imperative that we resolve the problem of illegal immigration. It is essential, many policymakers argue, that Iran not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.

At least one observer of things subjunctive, C.E.A. Finney of the University of Tennessee, challenges the notion that what he calls "a beautiful and valuable component of the English language" is dying out. He suggests that instead, "it actually is enjoying a subtle revival."

I'd like to think he's right. The subjunctive - used to refer to possibilities, doubts, desires, hopes, fears, wishes, external imperatives - seems so suited to that great gap between real and ideal in which we spend so much of our human lives that I'd expect it to be in great demand.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.