Que la Force soit avec vous.
This is a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately, being the French translation of the classic Star Wars salutation/blessing May the Force be with you. This won’t be about Star Wars though, but rather the grammatical rabbithole that that curious little verb soit sent me down.
The first time I heard the phrase, it was pretty clearly the French equivalent of May the Force be with you, but I’d never heard the verb soit before. Shouldn’t it be est, I thought, the third-person singular form of être (to be)? Or maybe it should be être itself… Certainly it should be some form of être, not whatever this soit is. So I looked up soit and discovered that it is in fact a form of être, specifically the third-person subjunctive form.
The subjunctive mood is one of those things you hear vaguely about, like pluperfect or imperfect tenses, that exist in other languages but that you never really have to worry about. But if you’re fairly proficient in English, you’ve actually probably used the subjunctive quite a lot without realising it.
Before we go any further, what on Earth is the subjunctive mood? Basically, it’s a particular form of a verb, generally used in formal language, often to express a wish or hypothesis. In French, the subjunctive form of a verb is generally very different from other commonly-used verb forms, and isn’t often used in daily conversation by the average French speaker (which is why I didn’t recognise it).
In English though, it’s quite a different story. The subjunctive form of the verb to be is… be. To go is go, to have is have etc. Perhaps now you can see how you could use the subjunctive regularly without knowing it. You see, sometimes be is just be, but sometimes, it’s the subjunctive form. Generally you wouldn’t recognise, or need to know, the difference. For example:
I suggest you go to the dentist.
Go in that sentence is the subjunctive form, but there’s nothing to really indicate that. But…
I suggest she go to the dentist.
Ah ha! If you think about it, isn’t it unusual that we say she go? Normally we say:
She goes to work by car.
She goes to the gym.
This is the normal indicative form of the verb that we use in a positive sentence. But, after certain verbs like to suggest we use the subjunctive form. We don’t really notice this if we’re using the first-person singular (I go), second-person singular (You go), first-person plural (We go), second-person plural (You go), or the third-person plural (They go), because the subjunctive form is the same as the indicative form.
But, in a normal sentence, we add an S to the third-person singular form of a verb. That’s not the case with the subjunctive though, which remains the same regardless of it being first, second, or third person, singular or plural.
The subjunctive isn’t used very often, mainly after the verb to suggest, as above, and also the verb to recommend. It can also be used after verbs like to insist, to demand, and to prefer, as well as after the adjectives important, necessary, and desirable.
These examples, by the way, are of the present subjunctive, but there is a past subjunctive too. We mostly use the verb to be in this form, which is were. Again, a form we also use often, but the most common and noticeable way we use it as the subjunctive is in a sentence beginning: If I were you… It would seem more logical to say If I was… if you think about it, but we use were here as it’s the subjunctive form (though it’s common and acceptable to say If I was…).
Finally, we also use the present subjunctive with many fixed phrases, often religious in origin, such as God/Heaven help us, Saints preserve us, or God save the queen.
Which takes us back to the similar May the Force be with you. Is the be here subjunctive, like soit in French? Not quite, but close enough. Strictly, The Force be with you would be an example of the subjunctive mood. Adding may though, is an example of a fairly common practice: adding a modal verb (may, might, must, will, would, should, can, could) to a phrase with a subjunctive verb to make it more conventional, as modal verbs are always followed by the bare infinitve form of a verb, which is identical to the subjunctive form.
All of which is terribly confusing, but a nonetheless interesting glimpse into the deep grammar of English. If you wish to delve deeper into English grammar, then the Force be with you!