English - The Subjunctive and Learning the Difference Between Who and Whom

The Subjunctive

'Subjunctive' is a word which I had heard of but never knew anything about until recently, when the Department for Education included it in a proposed Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Test for 2015. Once it's in the curriculum, it's fair game for the English papers being set by schools for entry at 11+.

The subjunctive is, effectively, the simplest part of the verb (the infinitive) but without the word 'to'. For example, 'play', 'think', 'go'. 'Were' in place of 'was' is another common example of the subjunctive. It is used in place of what may seem more logical in some sentences, for example 'It is advised that he attend the meeting'. The normal way of speaking suggests that the word should be 'attends' as it's going with the word 'he' and that would seem to be right.

However, the subjunctive works with a certain group of words and phrases and it is, at times, recognisable. Unfortunately, the change in grammar to accepting so many non-standard forms means that we rarely use the subjunctive and it serves little purpose in most English sentences that should use it.

Try these examples where it may be reasonable to see the subjunctive at work:

Insert the subjunctive form of the verb in the following sentences:

The doctor suggested that he _____ the medicine only when he felt unwell. (to take)

It is vital that she _____ . (to go)

The answer will, of course, usually be the infinitive of the verb without the word 'to', unless you have a different tense to deal with. The answers to the missing words above are 'take' and 'go'. Try explaining to a ten-year-old that 'It is vital that she go' is correct and you will see how difficult formal grammar can be. In general, look for the word 'if' or 'that' early in the sentence to indicate that a subjunctive may be used.

There are other forms of the subjunctive depending on the tense, such as the form beginning 'be ...', 'not ...' and 'should ...'


Who and Whom

Look at the following sentences and decide whether the correct words to put in the blank spaces. The answer will be either 'who' or 'whom'.

They spotted the boy ______ we had seen earlier.

The athlete ______ ran fastest won the race.

With 'who' and 'whom' there is a lot of confusion. While we can often spot that we should use 'whom' if it is preceded by the word 'to', there are so many other times that we simply put 'who' in where there should be 'whom'.

'Who' is used when the subject of the sentence is referred to. For example, 'Who is it?' or 'Look who is coming'. It is also used when there is an adjectival clause describing someone who is the subject of the sentence, such as 'The man, who had a long cane, was walking along the street.'

'Whom' is used when there is an indirect question being posed, such as 'Whom did you ask?' It is also used in adjectival clauses which are NOT the subject of the sentence. For example, 'She asked the girl whom we had not noticed before.'

To be honest, and this is not reflective of the formal grammar approach of the current government, I feel the use of 'whom' is declining and in most cases should be allowed to die out. However, as long as it exists, we need to be able to show our children where it should be used. Let's go back to our questions.

They spotted the boy whom we had seen earlier.

The boy is the object of the sentence and the extra information about him (the adjectival clause) should therefore use 'whom'.

The athlete who ran fastest won the race.

This time the missing word is about the athlete, and that is the subject of the sentence. Remember, the subject of the sentence carries out the action.

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