In his fantastic TEDx talk, Phuc Tran talks about the power of the subjunctive and in particular, how our use of grammar can shape the way we think.
Phuc’s parents emigrated to the US from Vietnam. Growing up learning English Phuc once said to his father:
“Dad, listen, you can say: if it hadn’t rained, we would’ve gone to the beach.” And my dad’s response: “That’s stupid. Why do you wanna talk about something that didn’t happen?”
How often do you waste energy entertaining the thought of what could have, should have or might have happened? Does any of this serve a purpose and does it help us to live presently?
Phuc goes on to elaborate:
The subjunctive allows us to look into the future and to see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities which has a little sprinkling of ‘coulds’, ‘woulds’ or ‘mights’ .Similarly, it allows us to look into the past and to imagine what didn’t happen, but could have happened. The subjunctive is the most powerful mood, it’s like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of ‘could have’ or ‘should have’. But within this idea of ‘should have’ is a Pandora’s box of hope and regret.
I’m not suggesting that the subjunctive is all bad. It can be an incredibly effective creative tool to explore other possibilities. However be aware of when you’re being pulled away from the present by these fantasies and take note especially of how and when you use it negatively.
When things don’t go to plan, don’t suggest what you ‘should have’ or ‘could have’ done. Say for example, that your partner forgets to pick up something from the supermarket. It would be neither wise, nor helpful to suggest that they should have written it down or that it might be better to put a reminder in their phone in future. It doesn’t help. Instead, let go of your expectations, what has happened and focus on now.
I personally tend to use the subjunctive when complaining about things, which as Tina Roth Eisenberg suggests: “Don’t complain, create.” Put what resources and energy you have towards doing good things.
We waste our time, mental and physical energy at the cost of living. We miss opportunities wallowing in the past or being seduced by the future. My grandma is a huge worrier and I get anxious about the future. Neither is healthy.
You can watch Phuc Tran’s full TEDx talk here: Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive: Phuc Tran