Tricky Words: Lest

Full disclosure: This post may be more about the subjunctive in English and less about lest, but I wanted to maintain the consistency of my titles lest I confuse anybody with too many categories.

OK. So what does that even mean? Let’s go over it, shall we?

From the New Oxford American dictionary:

lest |lest|
conjunction (formal)
with the intention of preventing (something undesirable); to avoid the risk of : he spent whole days in his room, headphones on lest he disturb anyone.
• (after a clause indicating fear) because of the possibility of something undesirable happening; in case : she sat up late worrying lest he be held up on the way home.

Here are the two example sentences from the definition again, but this time I have replaced lest+subject with a synonymous construction so you can see them in plain language.

  • [H]e spent whole days in his room, headphones on lest he to avoid the risk of disturb[ing] anyone.
  • [S]he sat up late worrying lest he in case he/in the case that he [was] held up on the way home.

The sense of the conjunction is quite simple; I think what makes it difficult is its infrequency in everyday speech and the fact that lest is one of the few words in English that necessitates the use of the subjunctive mood. (Cue sound clip of record scratching to a halt, like this one).

“But the subjunctive doesn’t exist in English”. Wrong. It does. In fact, it is alive and well but infrequent and sometimes it hides by mimicking the indicative and it is quite selective as to when it shows its face–or rears its ugly head–depending on how you feel about it.

For those of you like me, native English speaker who learned French or Spanish as a foreign language, you probably have a good handle on the subjunctive but only after being utterly confused and frustrated for years while achieving said handle. In a nutshell, we use the subjunctive to “express situations that are hypothetical or not yet realized and is typically used for what is imagined, hoped for, demanded, or expected”.

So we have examples like:

  • “If I were rich/you” not yet realized or hypothetical
  • “The school recommends that your child read out loud every day…” something hoped for
  • “It is important that he be on time for the hearing lest he spend more time in the clanker…” something expected

One contributing factor to the subjunctive’s fall into desuetude might be the role of modal verbs (should, could, may, might, et al.) in modern English. This is easy to illustrate because the three previous sentences that all carry the subjunctive mood can be rewritten with modals; although I feel the first example is much more frequent and less clumsy using the subjunctive and not the modal.

  • Should I be [rich]/Should I find myself in your shoes
  • “Your child should/ought to/had better read out loud every day…”
  • “He must be on time for the hearing unless he wants to spend more time in the clanker…”

The subjunctive also hides, in plain sight, that is. The subjunctive is identical to the indicative except in the conjugation of the third person singular and with the verb “to be”. Was goes to were, reads goes to read and spends goes to spend. The conjugations of the other subjects (I, you, we, they and all of you) are by and large the same in both the indicative and the subjunctive. More confusing but less to memorize.

Be that as it may, modern English views the subjunctive as formal and often stuffy. Far be it from me to speculate whether it will survive but perish the thought of English without the subjunctive. Without it, we would not be able to cry “God help you” without provoking confused looks nor  simply say, “lest we forget” to sway from the path of hubris. Come what may, I shall do my utmost, as it were, to keep the subjunctive kicking for a little while longer.

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3 comments

  1. I am LOVING the word nerdfest going on in your blog. Awesome!

  2. I wonder if the subjunctive will only live on in retro sayings like the two you highlight in your last paragraph. For instance, I feel like the thoughts behind this saying are something that we would never express exactly this way in our current day and age: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And many people don’t say this full phrase. They just obliquely reference it – “But for the grace of God…” I feel like I constantly run into little expressions that have preserved words and styles of speech that we don’t ever use in contemporary conversation. And I am still intensely curious why should/out to/must have been in decline (and why I immediately hear all your example sentences in the voice of an uptight, British school marm).

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