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Whether it be/is; Subjunctive or indicative mood

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Whether it be/is; Subjunctive or indicative mood

Postby Enigma » Tue Feb 09, 2010 7:17 pm

Searching the web, I noticed an inconsistency in answers among the elite grammarians over the use of whether it be and whether it is. :o


Do you think either is acceptable in every circumstance?

Do you think in most cases both are acceptable, but in exceptional cirumstances only one is correct?

Or do you think only one is correct in every circumstance?
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Postby Slava » Tue Feb 09, 2010 9:06 pm

They feel identical in meaning, so I'd need some questionable examples to play with before I could really make a decision. However, as I said, they seem interchangeable at first glance.
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Postby saparris » Wed Feb 10, 2010 12:46 am

Searching the web, I noticed an inconsistency in answers among the elite grammarians over the use of whether it be and whether it is.

Do you think either is acceptable in every circumstance?

Do you think in most cases both are acceptable, but in exceptional circumstances, only one is correct?

Or do you think only one is correct in every circumstance?


First, “whether it be” is subjunctive, and “whether it is” is indicative, so you have to understand the uses of the subjunctive to know which one to use.

In the case of “whether,” the subjunctive is most often used when there are two conditions about which the speaker is uncertain—or doesn’t care. For example,

“Whether the enemy be weak or strong, we will attack them at the break of day.”

“Whether they be roses from the garden or lilies from the field, my wife loves fresh flowers.”

If there are not two conditions, the sentence will be in the indicative:

I don’t know whether it is cold enough to snow.”

We are never sure whether he will arrive on time.”

Of course, there are “conversational” exceptions where a speaker will choose the indicative because the subjunctive sounds stuffy. Also, as time goes by, speakers of English are using the subjunctive less frequently, probably because it is difficult to understand.
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Postby Slava » Wed Feb 10, 2010 12:58 am

saparris wrote:“Whether the enemy be weak or strong, we will attack them at the break of day.”

“Whether they be roses from the garden or lilies from the field, my wife loves fresh flowers.”
With these two sentences, does it make a difference if we add "It doesn't matter if..." before them? Instead of "whether."? Why does the mood change here? I can't say "be," it must be an "is" or "are."
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Postby Enigma » Wed Feb 10, 2010 1:17 am

In the case of “whether,” the subjunctive is most often used when there are two conditions about which the speaker is uncertain—or doesn’t care.


I recently read a slightly different angle. Instead of paraphrasing what was said, I'll be lazy and copy and paste (it's discussing the following sentence: The man loves to do his work, whether it be cleaning the yard, testing toys, or singing.)

"...whether it be..." often (always?) precedes a series of items that have been chosen to illustrate a larger set.

Here, for instance, three seemingly disparate items from the set {things he does} illustrate the bewildering range of his activities. (It does seem a very peculiar job description.)

You couldn't use this structure in an ordinary set of choices:

1. Look out of the window and tell me whether it's raining, snowing, or just a little misty.

(Not "...whether it be...")



Obviously we aren't going to have complete harmony, but it does seem you both have different ideas about when the subjunctive and indicative form is used.

Have you heard of this approach before, Sap?
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Postby saparris » Wed Feb 10, 2010 1:18 am

With these two sentences, does it make a difference if we add "It doesn't matter if..." before them? Instead of "whether."? Why does the mood change here? I can't say "be," it must be an "is" or "are."


First of all, "whether" is much more tricky than "if" when it comes to choosing mood. One of the reasons for the subjunctive is to express a condition contrary to fact.

For example "If I were you [and I'm not], I would put on a warmer coat" clearly expresses a counterfactual condtion--because I am not you.

"Whether" automatically places us into an unknown realm, since the use of "whether" indicates uncertainty by its very nature.

But if you say "It doesn't matter if...," there is really no uncertainty, since whatever the wife gets, she will like.
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Postby saparris » Wed Feb 10, 2010 1:23 am

"...whether it be..." often (always?) precedes a series of items that have been chosen to illustrate a larger set.

Here, for instance, three seemingly disparate items from the set {things he does} illustrate the bewildering range of his activities. (It does seem a very peculiar job description.)

You couldn't use this structure in an ordinary set of choices:

1. Look out of the window and tell me whether it's raining, snowing, or just a little misty.

(Not "...whether it be...")


I understand what he's saying, but where is his example of "whether it be"?
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Postby Enigma » Wed Feb 10, 2010 1:27 am

It's the sentence in bold above the quote.
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Postby saparris » Wed Feb 10, 2010 1:37 am

I missed that.

Yes, I agree with him. The fact that they are illustrations of a larger set means that there could be many more illustrations, and the ones given are not finite.

It's similar to my roses and lilies example. My wife could like many other types of flowers, and these are simply examples.

However, it the "look out the window" sentence, the speaker is asking for something specific, not giving examples.

It's midnight here. I'm gone.
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Postby Enigma » Wed Feb 10, 2010 6:17 pm

I have read so many interpretations now I have myself caught in a knot.

Since 'whether it be' is present subjunctive, does this mean the hypothetical nature of the statement isn't considered?

Or is the hypothetical nature of the statement still considered with this present subjunctive, and is this consideration what you mean here:

In the case of “whether,” the subjunctive is most often used when there are two conditions about which the speaker is uncertain—or doesn’t care. For example,
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Postby saparris » Wed Feb 10, 2010 10:42 pm

The hypothetical nature of the subjunctive is used most often in “if” clauses that express a condition that is contrary to fact.

If I were a king, I would have mercy on my subjects. (I am not a king, and I don’t have any subjects.)
If I were you, I would go into medicine. (I am not you, so I can’t decide on your career.)

“Whether” is a bit different, since it creates a true/false condition, not a hypothetical one.

I don’t know whether he will come or stay at home. (Either he will or won’t—true or false, and there’s nothing hypothetical about it.)

When the action of the main clause is conditional upon the truth (or lack thereof) of a dependent clause beginning with whether, the subjunctive could be in order. However, the use of the indicative with “whether” clauses has become so common that I think it has almost become a matter of choice or formality. (I’m speaking only of “whether” and the subjunctive, not of the other uses of the mood.

Remember that Shakespeare wrote, “Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.” And that’s indicative.
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Postby Enigma » Thu Feb 11, 2010 6:25 am

When the action of the main clause is conditional upon the truth (or lack thereof) of a dependent clause beginning with whether, the subjunctive could be in order.


This seems to be a different reason from your first post. Is the subjunctive used if the main clause is dependent/conditional upon the truth (or lack thereof) or if the speaker is uncertain about the two conditions?

I've read many interpreations on this subject--some good, some ridiculous. Both of yours seem logical. Maybe I should resort to using either is or be, the one that tickles my fancy on the day.

In the case of “whether,” the subjunctive is most often used when there are two conditions about which the speaker is uncertain—or doesn’t care. For example,


“Whether the enemy be weak or strong, we will attack them at the break of day.”


This main clause doesn't seem to depend upon the 'whether' clause.

“Whether they be roses from the garden or lilies from the field, my wife loves fresh flowers.”


Same again--doesn't seem to depend upon the 'whether clause'
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Postby saparris » Thu Feb 11, 2010 10:50 pm

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.) –Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

I really don’t think that the explanations are contradictory, but there are several issues regarding “whether” and the indicative vs. subjunctive that come into play—some grammatical, some not.

First, language tends to become simpler over time, and the nuances and irregularities of the language are affected more so than everyday usage. Colour has become color in American English, data are is becoming data is, catsup has become ketchup, and so forth.

Also, compare the number of Latin cases and verb endings to those of contemporary Romance language (or Germanic grammar to English grammar), and it is a wonder that the subjunctive has survived at all.

Second, even in the simpler uses of the subjunctive, people often ignore it or become confused. “If” clauses that express a condition contrary to fact are fairly easy to understand:

If I were you, I would consider running for office.
If here were not so tall, he could find clothes to fit him without having to order them.


Yet many speakers will say “if I was you” and “If he was not….”

“Whether” phrases and clauses are exceptionally tricky. They all create an either/or situation, but some don’t express it fully (“I’m not sure whether he will come [or not]”), and those that express an either/or situation don’t always have an impact on the main clause.

For example, here is a mixture of indicative and subjunctive that all sound correct.

I’ll be there, whether it rains or shines.
I’ll be there, whether it be raining or shining.
[Whether] he be alive or dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread” (actually written as “Be he alive or be he dead...”).
“Whether the enemy be weak or strong, we will attack at the break of day.”
“Whether the enemy is weak or strong, we will attack at the break of day.”
“Whether they be roses from the garden or lilies from the field, my wife loves fresh flowers.”
“Whether they are roses from the garden or lilies from the field, my wife loves fresh flowers.”

Finally, I think that two things are important when choosing the indicative or subjunctive. First, the truth or falsity of the conditions in the subordinate clause, along with their impact of the action of the main clause, lies within the perception of the speaker, so the speaker should be to one to choose the mood. In many cases, the action in the main clause will occur regardless of whether either condition in true, so it's almost like "conditions" contrary to fact.

Second, it either the indicative or subjunctive sounds acceptable, they probably are.
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Postby Slava » Thu Feb 11, 2010 11:02 pm

saparris wrote:Second, even in the simpler uses of the subjunctive, people often ignore it or become confused. “If” clauses that express a condition contrary to fact are fairly easy to understand:

If I were you, I would consider running for office.
If here were not so tall, he could find clothes to fit him without having to order them.


Yet many speakers will say “if I was you” and “If he was not….”
Interestingly, and much to my surprise, the BBC site mentioned in another thread ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learn ... v301.shtml ) states that was and were are "fully interchangeable."
Last edited by Slava on Thu Feb 11, 2010 11:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby saparris » Thu Feb 11, 2010 11:08 pm

They are becoming so in some cases, but I don't think you can say "If I was you...." and be perceived as correct.
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