Subjunctive: ... would that she were here with us now?

Hela

Senior Member
Tunisia - French
Dear teachers,

Would you please explain this sturcture to me? What does "would that" mean exactly and why does it need the subjunctive?

My mother would know what to do. Oh, would that she WERE here with us now !

All the best,
Hela
 
  • bartonig

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Hela said:
    Dear teachers,

    Would you please explain this sturcture to me? What does "would that" mean exactly and why does it need the subjunctive?

    My mother would know what to do. Oh, would that she WERE here with us now !

    All the best,
    Hela
    It isn't modern English. It's a rather melodramatic way of saying, "Oh, I wish she were here with us now!"
     

    rsweet

    Senior Member
    English, North America
    Hela said:
    My mother would know what to do. Oh, would that she WERE here with us now !
    Hi Hela,

    This means the same thing as "Oh, I wish she were here . . . ."

    You use the subjunctive to express doubt, uncertainty, wish, or supposition. It also signals a condition contrary to fact.

    Hope this helps. :)
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Originally, would was the past tense of will, where "I will that" means something more than "I want that" and something less than "I intend" (the modern meaning of "will," if you think about it).

    Today we have a more vague understanding of the force of will, we refer to it as a "power" we mostly don't believe in-- a little like prayer. You can't will something to happen, just as you can't evoke something out of thin air simply by uttering its name in a solemn oathlike way-- unless you're some kind of Druid or shaman, andaren't these figures of fiction for 999 out of a thousand of us?

    It's because of the loss of this belief (I speculate), that we don't use will as an independent verb, standing alone in the archaic sense of "I will it so." But the meaning of intentionality is clear even in the word's subordination as a modal verb form, the "helping" part of the future tense-- whose construction resembles a phrasal verb and probably had its origin in one.

    "I would that it were" evolved from the lost simple past into the subjunctive form of the archaic meaning of will, and though it is almost always equated with "wishing," the whimsy of wishing is not quite what the subjunctive of volition used to impart clearly-- and still does, for those whose ears still pick up echoes of intentionality in this usage.

    "I would that" doesn't just frame a wish or express a yearning, it adds elements of exhorting the thing to come to pass, recalling the days of evocation.

    Nowadays we believe in cause and effect in the more "scientific" sense, and wishing is relegated to the world of fiction and fantasy, just as the imagination itself is confused and even equated with daydreaming.

    I think I can make a useful set of examples out of another statement about wishing, "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride."

    As wishing goes, this is a cold reduction to the contrary-to-fact subjunctive, a clear result of the deification of Fact by the British Empiricists of the 18th century. It clearly admonishes wishers, reminds them that wishes aren't "solid" things (like horses) and that they have no practical use for anything real (such as riding).

    The subjunctive-of-volition version is, "would that wishes were horses, that beggars might ride." An urging is present here, and the tone could be mournfully pessimistic or brighter, a rousing exhortation in the "clap if you believe" mode.

    A truly Merlinesque person of even earlier times might use the exhortatory subjunctive-- "Let wishes be horses, and beggars ride."
    .
     

    Txiri

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Nicely put, fox. I agree with your points about will, would and hortatoriness.
     

    dwipper

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    I think I have also seen this type of construction used once or twice as a conditional present subjunctive, only with 'be' or 'might be' in place of 'were.' In this case, it would be the same as "Oh, that she might here with us now," only with a conditional sense.

    However, in this case, since it is a past subjunctive, I entirely agree with foxfirebrand.
     

    Hela

    Senior Member
    Tunisia - French
    <<Mod's note : this post and the following one have been moved from this thread>>

    Could someone give me the meaning of "I would that it were so" mentionned by foxfirebrand above, please?
     

    Wynn Mathieson

    Senior Member
    English - United Kingdom
    Could someone give me the meaning of "I would that it were so" mentionned by foxfirebrand above, please?
    I would that it were so

    "I would that" is an archaic/literary way of expressing a wish. To my mind, it frequently conveys a strong note of regret (much more so than necessarily does the simple "I wish").

    -- It is not so
    -- Were it so, I should be happy
    -- I would that it were so

    I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead! (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
    I would that my tongue could utter the thoughts that arise in me. (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
    I would that I had never, never come near it! (Charles Dickens)
    I would that all men were even as I myself. (King James Bible)
    Notice that the verb of the complement clause [are --> were, can --> could, have-->had...come] is always tense-shifted towards the past and is subjunctive (though only observably so in the case of are-->were!).

    Wynn
     

    machadinho

    Senior Member
    Português do Brasil
    Hi. I gather from this thread that would that it were is a somewhat literary way of expressing a wish. But I am a bit confused about the example below. Here is the context. Lying is morally wrong. But sometimes it seems not to be so. Suppose people are hidding from a Nazi guard at your appartment, and that guard knocks at the door and asks you whether you know where they are. In this case, it seems to be ok to tell him a lie.
    Thus telling a falsehood to the Nazi guard, for instance, may indeed be honorable rather than shameful, but it's because something has gone awry: there is something badly amiss (namely, the Nazi's evil) from the moral point of view. (It is, if you will, a bad-making feature of the situation that lying is now a moral plus: would that it weren't honorable here to lie.) <Little, M. O. "Particularism and Moral Theory">
    My question is: Why does the author use the negative weren't here? Does she wish it weren't honorable to lie in that case? Thanks.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Yes, as Foxfirebrand said in the post above (several years ago), it's stronger than a wish. It's more like "if it were in my power to change things, they wouldn't be this way".

    As I read it, the author is saying that it is unfortunate that the situation twists things in such a way that lying is a moral plus and laments the fact that the situation makes it honorable to lie. It is a bad outcome of a bad situation.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Right, now I see: as you said, she means she wishes there were no Nazis.
    Thanks! :)
    I think it's a bit more complicated than that. She is sad that there can be a situation that is so bad that lying becomes an honorable act. It is a perversion of morality in response to an immoral situation. At least, that's how I read it. Both things are bad: the situation and lying in response to the situation. She would rather have a world where neither existed.
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top