Moody Verbing

Yesterday I was proofing a conference brochure. Pretty standard stuff, updating some course titles and instructors, and an entire article had been pasted in for inclusion. An intermediary between me and the author had inserted a note on a word, described below. I toyed with it and both options sounded feasible to me, because there were a couple ways of approaching it. I turned to Edit Twitter with a question as to what rule governs this part of speech, and many people spoke up, including June Casagrande who worked it out and raised more questions until it became A Thing. And once it was resolved (to my satisfaction, anyway) I wrote up a summary for the benefit of my office, which I don’t see why I shouldn’t share here.

Tricky grammar question this morning:

“It is only fitting that the lectureship [reflect/reflects] this principle.”

Both sound correct, though maybe one sounds formal. People will understand what’s being expressed either way, so what’s the difference?

We have to look at something called verb mood. No, we’re not worried about whether the verb got enough sleep or how its draft picks are doing. Verb mood has to do with how the verb is describing its action. There are three verb moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive (CMOS17: 5.120, for those playing at home; thank you, James Gallagher).

The indicative mood for that sentence would be “The lectureship reflects this principle,” or “Is the lectureship reflective of this principle?” The verb is simply stating a fact (or an opinion).

The imperative mood uses the verb for commands, like “get out of here” or “listen to this.” As with imperative statements, “you” as the subject is tacitly understood, but it can appear in questions like “Will you take me to the mall?”

Subjunctive mood does not state facts or impel action. It is reserved for hypotheticals, conditional situations, or abstract expressions. You’ve heard it in “perish the thought” and “heaven help us.” Note that it’s not “the thought perishes” or “heaven helps us”: imagine an unspoken “may” in these examples, which means “it hasn’t happened but I really hope it does.” Calling upon divine intervention like this is also known as a hortatory subjunctive (thank you, Madam Grammar), and you’ll recognize the root of that from “exhort,” to encourage or urge.

In the case of the lectureship, “reflect” is a hortatory subjunctive. You can reduce the original sentence down to “It is fitting that this should happen,” and like the implied “may,” “should” can also become implied: “it’s good that the lecture reflect this principle” (as opposed to “the lecture reflects this principle, and that’s good,” which is two indicatives in a row). You can reword it: “may the lectureship reflect the principle.” In that sense it’s especially clear it should not be “reflects”: the writer is not commanding future lecturers how to write (imperative: “Reflect this principle in your lectures”) but instead exhorting fate or the gods above that whatever future lecturers do, the best course of action would be, hypothetically, for their lectures to reflect the guiding principle.

If you think that’s confusing, wait till I explain how an imperative like “heaven help us” is called an apostrophe.

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