Grammatical mood

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In linguistics, many grammars have the concept of grammatical mood, which describes the relationship of a verb with reality and intent. Many languages express distinctions of mood through morphology, by changing (inflecting) the form of the verb.

Because modern English does not have all of the moods described below, and has a very simplified system of verb inflection as well, it is not straightforward to explain the moods in English. Note, too, that the exact sense of each mood differs from language to language.

Grammatical mood per se is not the same thing as grammatical tense or grammatical aspect, although these concepts are conflated to some degree in many languages, including English and most other modern Indo-European languages, insofar as the same word patterns are used to express more than one of these concepts at the same time.

Currently identified moods include conditional, imperative, indicative, injunctive, negative, optative, potential, subjunctive, and more. The original Indo-European inventory of moods was indicative, subjunctive, optative, and imperative. Not every Indo-European language has each of these moods, but the most conservative ones such as Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit retain them all. Some Uralic Samoyedic languages have over ten moods.


Indicative mood

The indicative mood is used in factual statements. All intentions in speaking that a particular language does not put into another mood use the indicative. It is the most commonly used mood and is found in all languages. Example: "Paul is reading books" or "Paul reads books".

Imperative mood

The imperative mood expresses commands, direct requests, and prohibitions. In many circumstances, directly using the imperative mood seems blunt or even rude, so it is often used with care. Example: "Paul, read that book".

Many languages, including English, use the bare verb stem to form the imperative. In English, second-person is implied by the imperative except when first-person plural is specified, as in "Let's go."

Subjunctive mood

The subjunctive mood has several uses in independent clauses. Examples include discussing hypothetical or unlikely events, expressing opinions or emotions, or making polite requests (the exact scope is language-specific). A subjunctive mood exists in English, but appears to be falling out of common use; many native English speakers do not use it. Example: "I suggested that Paul read books". Paul is not in fact reading the book. Contrast this with the sentence "Paul reads books", where the verb read has the third person singular ending. Another way, especially in British English, of expressing this might be "I suggested that Paul should read books.", derived from "Paul should read books." Other uses of the subjunctive in English, as in "And if he be not able to bring a lamb, then he shall bring for his trespass..." (KJV Leviticus 5:7) have definitely become archaic.

The subjunctive mood figures prominently in the grammar of the Romance languages, which require this mood for certain types of dependent clauses. This point commonly causes difficulty for English speakers learning these languages.

Conditional mood

The conditional mood is used to express a lack of certainty about whether the action ever occurs, particularly, but not exclusively, in conditional clauses. In English, the conditional is manifested by means of the modal auxiliary 'would' added to the bare infinitive, e.g. I would buy. In other languages, such as Spanish, it is expressed by means of morphological marking on the verb. So, the conditional of 'John eats' is, in English, 'John would eat' ('would' + bare infinitive of main verb) and, in Spanish, 'Juan comería' (infinitive comer ((to) eat)) + third-singular ía).

Typically, it introduces subordinate clauses which are headed by a phrase roughly meaning 'on the condition that', such as 'if', 'as long as', etc., and these phrases can have their meaning intensified by items like 'even', as in 'even if'. A peculiarity in English and several related languages is that the the conditional mood occurs only in the main clause: the verb of the subordinate clause is marked for subjunctive modality. This is unusual; in Finnish, for example, the conditional mood is used both in the main and the subordinate clauses. An example in English with a conditional main clause and a subjunctive subordinate clause is: I would buy a house if I earned a lot of money (I might buy a house, if I earn a lot of money, but I do not and thus earning a lot of money is a condition for buying a house.) Compare Finnish, where the both clauses have a conditional marker (-isi-): Ostaisin talon, jos ansaitsisin paljon rahaa.

The conditional mood does not express uncertainty; this is a distinct mood, the potential mood, which is expressed with the words "probably" or "may" in English. The conditional mood is sometimes erroneously called a tense rather than a mood. This practice should be avoided, as tense refers exclusively to temporal location, and therefore in no way does it involve conditions, desires, etc., which are all modal. However, despite this, linguistics tends to be the only area in which such discrimination takes place — in foreign language courses, for example, non-temporal distinctions such as the conditional mood may be erroneously called 'tenses'.

Generic mood

The generic mood is used to make generalizations about a particular class of things, e.g. in "Rabbits are fast", one is speaking about rabbits in general, rather than about particular fast rabbits. English has no means of morphologically distinguishing generic mood from indicative mood, so the distinction must be made by contextual clues and linguistic experience.

Negative mood

The negative mood expresses a negated action. In many languages, this is not distinct mood; negativity is expressed by adding a particle before (as in Russian or Esperanto: "Li ne iras."), after (as in archaic or dialectic English: "Thou remembrest not?"), or both (as in French: "Je ne sais pas.".) Standard English brings in a helper verb, do usually, and then adds not after it: "I did not go there".

In Indo-European languages, it is not customary to speak of a negative mood, since in these languages negation is originally a grammatical particle that can be applied to a verb in any of these moods. In some non-Indo-European languages, the negative mood counts as a separate mood. It could be argued that Modern English has joined the ranks of these languages, since negation in the indicative mood requires the use of an auxiliary verb and a distinct syntax in most cases. Contrast, for instance, "He sings" -> "He doesn't sing" (where the auxiliary to do has to be supplied, inflected to does, and the clitic form of not suffixed to derive the negative from "He sings") with "Il chante" -> "Il ne chante pas"; French adds the (discontinuous) negative particle ne...pas, without changing the form of the verb.

Interrogative Mood

The interrogative mood is used for asking questions. Most languages do not have a special mood for asking questions, but Nenets does.

Optative mood

The optative mood expresses hopes, wishes or commands and has other uses that may overlap with the subjunctive mood. Few languages have an optative as a distinct mood; Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Japanese, and Finnish are four that do.

In Finnish, the mood may be called an "archaic" or "formal imperative", even if it has other uses; nevertheless, it does express formality at least. For example, 9th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with Älköön ketään pidätettäkö mielivaltaisesti, "Not anyone shall be arrested arbitrarily", where älköön pidätettäkö "shall not be arrested" is the optative of ei pidätetä "is not arrested". (Also, using the conditional mood -isi- in conjunction with the clitic -pa yields an optative meaning, e.g. olisinpa "if I only was". Here, it is evident that the wish is not, and probably will not be fulfilled.)

In Japanese the verb inflection -tai expresses the speaker's desire, e.g. watashi wa asoko ni ikitai "I want to go there". Oddly enough, this verb form is treated as a pseudo-adjective: the auxiliary verb garu is used by dropping the end -i of an adjective to indicate the outward appearance of another's mental state, in this case the desire of a person other than the speaker (e.g. Jon-san wa tabetagatte imasu "John wants to eat").

Sometimes this is called a "desiderative mood", since it indicates desires. Occasionally distinctions are made between different optative moods, e.g. a mood to express hopes v.s. mood to express desires. (Desires are what we want to be the case; a hope is a desire which we have a positive attitude towards its fulfilment. If you desire something, but are pessimistic about its occurrence, then you desire but do not hope for it.)

Cohortative mood

The cohortative mood is used to express plea, insistence, imploring, self-encouragement, wish, desire, intent, command, purpose or consequence. It does not exist in English, but phrases such as "let us" are often used to denote it.

Jussive mood

The jussive mood is similar to the cohortative mood, in that it expresses plea, insistence, imploring, self-encouragement, wish, desire, intent, command, purpose or consequence. In some languages, the two are distinguished in that cohortative occurs in the first person and the jussive in the second or third.

Potential mood

The potential mood is a mood of probability, indicating that the action most likely, but not certainly, occurs. It is used in Finnish and Japanese. (In Japanese it is often called something like tentative, since potential is used to refer to a voice indicating capability to perform the action.)

In Finnish, it is mostly a literary device, as it has virtually disappeared from daily spoken language in most dialects. Its suffix is -ne-, but such that any possible consonant clusters simplify, e.g. korjata -> *korjatnee -> korjannee ("probably will fix"), or tulla -> *tulnee -> tullee ("probably will come"). The auxiliary verb lie is used in other forms than the present tense as lienee, e.g. lienee korjannut "probably fixed".

In English, it is formed by means of the auxiliaries may, can, ought and must.

Eventive mood

The eventive mood is used in the Finnish epic poem, Kalevala. It is a combination of the potential and the conditional. It is also used in dialects of Estonian. In Finnish, there are theoretically forms like this:

  • 'kävelleisin' = 'I probably would walk'

Dubitative mood

The dubitative mood is used in Ojibwe, Turkish, and other languages. It expresses the speaker's doubt or uncertainty about the event denoted by the verb. See irrealis.

Hypothetical mood

The hypothetical mood, found in Russian, Lakota, and other languages, expresses a counterfactual but possible event or situation.

Energetic mood

Found in Classical Arabic and various other Semitic languages, the energetic mood expresses something which is strongly believed or which the speaker wishes to emphasize, e.g. "Ya-ktub-un". ("He certainly writes.")

de:Modus (Grammatik) eo:Gramatika modo fi:Tapaluokka pl:Tryb (gramatyka) sv:Modus zh:语气


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