Exhortative vs. constative

I like to refrain from grammar pedantry, but when an error introduces unnecessary ambiguity into a text, it merits mention, and there is a particular instance of ignorance of the English subjunctive I have seen crop up in recent weeks in the work of writers who should know better: with exhortative verbs such as suggest, insist, demand. I have seen the error in a lauded translation of a classic Italian novel issued by one of the best literary houses, in a popular neuroscience book, and in the LRB. That so easy a thing to get right continually winds up in print is worrisome.

He insisted that I ate the pie is constative, not exhortative – it implies that there is controversy as to whether or not I ate the pie, and takes a stand as regards this controversy.

He insisted that I eat the pie means he ordered me to eat the pie.

If you can’t do this right, then use should, which is clumsier but maybe easier to remember. Constative: she suggested they ran across the street. Exhortative: she suggested they should run across the street. A shade of force is lost, but it’s better than writing unclearly.

In general, a knowledge of the English subjunctive is of little use. If it were vs. if it was have been vying with each other for centuries; if it be sounds absurd now; and outside of poetry, most of its more recondite employments ring downright foreign to English speakers’ ears. But here is an instance worth preserving.

This is probably of no interest to 99% of the people who read my blog, but if one editor, writer, or translator sees and remembers this, it will have been worth it.



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