Thursday, August 10, 2017


            Nothing like a grammatical term to get a reader to keep going, right? But the subjunctive mood (yes, “mood” is what they call it) is something special.

            I recently heard a TED Talk by the Vietnamese/American tattooist/classicist, Phuc Tran. (How he got through high school with that name is beyond the scope of this post.) He argues that the grammar of a language strongly shapes the quality of the experience of people who think, at least in part, through a filter of that language. The theory is debatable, and some discount it altogether, but this is my blog, so I’m going to go with it, at least for a while.

            What is the subjunctive mood? Wikipedia says, in part, “Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that have not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language. The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real) – it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood (used principally to indicate that something is a statement of fact).” The alternative to the subjunctive mood is the indicative mood.

[Insert comment about President Trump here.]

            Tran’s point is that the Vietnamese language of his father lacks the subjunctive mood, and this dramatically alters his interactions with reality. He lives within the indicative mood. He cannot express or experience what might have happened if his family member had not stepped off the bus that was bombed, and he could not tell young Phuc that he wishes his son had studied engineering rather than classics. I wish that my memory of these details were clear.

            Tran’s talk, however valid or invalid his assumptions, led me to speculate about what it would be like to live only in the indicative mood. What thoughts and experiences would be removed, and what might replace them?

1.     If only Kim’s tumor were detected sooner.
2.     If only Kim and I were ten years younger.
3.     I wish that Kim’s cancer were a bad dream.
4.     I wish that I could awaken from the nightmare of Trump’s presidency.
5.     If only I were a better cook!
6.     What if Kim were paralyzed from her spinal tumor?
7.     My dentist recommends that I floss more deftly.

            Living only in the indicative mood, I have a different attitude and approach:

1.     We will eat less sugar and processed food, and even stop drinking bourbon, because Kim’s treatment has not removed all of her cancer.
2.     We exercise daily (pretty much), avoiding the elevator whenever possible, and hang out with young people, even if they are as old as we are.
3.     I wake up every morning glad to share a gentle morning hug with Kim, sometimes searching for sore spots.
4.     I wish that I could awaken from the nightmare of Trump’s presidency. (Sorry – I can’t move out of this wish.)
5.     My cooking skills are slowly improving. I have learned to make coleslaw involving two (2) kinds of cabbage.
6.     I love walking up the stairs behind Kim.
7.     I don’t floss very deftly, and google is not much help, but at least I put string in my mouth every day.

            See how it works? No more “if only” mind games, no more regretful wishes or “if onlies,” no more woulda coulda shouldas, no more fewer evasions, and more focus on the realis.

This morning I awoke in the indicative mood.


  1. Perfect example of the subjunctive vs. indicative! I will use this to introduce to my Spanish 3 students this coming year:) In Spanish, we even have to use the subjunctive after 'when', before a future action. Example: "When I arrive home, I'll call you." Well- there is a possibility that I won't make it home, so..."arrive" must be in the subjunctive. I like that we're more indicative in English- so WHEN we SEE you guys next, I'm certain that we'll have just as lovely a time as we did Tuesday. Hugs

  2. And P.S. I can see why you like walking behind Kim up the stairs- she's lookin' fine in those leggings! :)

  3. I think of having a Budhist attitude as being in the indicative mood. "It is what it is!" The indicative mood simplifies our lives. We may not like or agree with the reality of events. It's a more Tao attitude.