February 05, 2008

Imperfect tense of the subjunctive mood

Oh, dear, I think linguification is back. Eric seems to be right. I hope I did not tempt it out of whatever rhetorical crypt it was lurking in during 2007. Fred Inglis, emeritus professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield, reviews George Steiner's My Unwritten Books in this week's Times Higher Education (31 January 2008, 44-45), and describes Steiner's conceit (a survey of seven books that he claims he would have written had he the time) as "a memoir in the imperfect tense of the subjunctive mood."

An imperfect tense is one used in describing a habitual state rather than a completed event (He walked up to the village each evening as opposed to (He had walked up to the village immediately); and the subjunctive mood is a form of the verb used in certain contexts that do not involve reporting of facts (the closest approach in English would be that it be written as opposed to that it was written). Professor Inglis does not mean that Steiner avoids the perfect tense (after all, my unwritten books means the books I have not written, which is in the present perfect); and as for the subjunctive, it is rare enough in English to make it likely that it hardly turns up in Steiner's book at all.

The linguistic claim is not true, and is not supposed to be believed. Inglis merely means that the book is a memoir concerning uncompleted works that Steiner hoped might be written. He expresses this in terms suggesting he is talking about verbal inflections for tense and mood, though in fact he is not. But why? Why a false claim about tense and mood to cloak a (possibly true) claim about nonlinguistic reality? Is Professor Inglis showing us that he knows how to brandish technical terms from traditional grammar, in the belief that this will convince us he is clever enough to be writing a review of George Steiner? I do not know. I have never been able to answer why-questions about linguification.

Several people have suggested to me that he is brandishing his knowledge of Latin grammar. Well, it is quite right that in Latin a conditional clause about something not done ("if I had written...") would be in the subjunctive; but not necessarily in an imperfect tense. The Latin translation of "if I had written a book about it" would be in the pluperfect subjunctive. Steiner didn't write in Latin anyway, so you could call this redundant, but even if we pretended we thought Inglis was talking about Latin, his linguification would not come out true.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 5, 2008 06:00 AM