Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

Long "Lives" the Queen?

If you live in the English-speaking world, the odds are high that you've heard, or maybe even used, the expression, "Long Live the Queen." There's a special feeling to the phrase, isn't there? Not because of the content of the phrase itself, but because of its texture as it's spoken. It's as though it belongs to a foreign or earlier set of English rules, not quite your own. It just feels a little -- off.

After all, grammatically, it's a bit of a perplexity. Why "live," and not "lives?" If we were to reorder the phrase, we would certainly say, "The Queen lives long." So, what are we actually saying when we use this phrase? Is there a reason for this strange verb form?

It turns out that there is, and it's called "Subjunctive Mood." The Subjunctive Mood can be found in many languages. As its name may hint, it is a mood which expresses subjectivity. In other words, the Subjunctive is how we might express our own emotions, judgments, or uncertainties when discussing a situation. This may sound difficult to get a hand around, but in fact, English-speakers instinctively use this grammatical mood all the time, mostly to express strong desire for something.

An everyday example: "I would prefer that you be on time," as opposed to "I would prefer that you are on time." There are very few, if any, instances in which the latter would or could be used -- and you, as an English speaker, already knew this!

Often, in English, the Subjunctive mood is hidden. The form of the verb usually doesn't even change. Between "I call my mother daily," and "it is important that I call my mother daily," can you tell which is Subjunctive? Although the modified verb, "to call," looks the same in both, it's only in the second phrase that it is Subjunctive. An exception to this frequent pattern is the verb "to be," which when modified changes from "I am" to "I be," or "You are" to "You be," as in the example shown above.

One other common exception is the "he/she" form of most regular verbs. In the Subjunctive mood, "she gives" becomes "she give." "He calls" becomes "He call." At this point, you can probably see the pattern: With the Subjunctive mood, the 's' is dropped from the end of "he/she" verb forms.

Now that you know the basic rules, go out and use them freely! Long live the Subjunctive!