11

15% down the page: LORD POLONIUS [says:] This business is well ended.
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness ♦ the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad: ...

1. What's the subject of were? Is it 'My liege, and madam, to expostulate ... Were nothing...'? If so, shouldn't this be was, or is the present subjunctive somehow used?

2. Is a verb (like 'is') missing where I placed the black lozenge? What's this phenomenon called?

8

(Expanding on an earlier comment…)

Tunny’s answer is correct: “to expostulate” is the subject, it doesn’t seem to agree with “were” because this is an archaic form, and “is” is missing in a literary technique known as ellipsis. (Incidentally, this sort of ellipsis is literary but not archaic. Another famous example is Pope’s “To err is human; to forgive, [is] divine”.)

As for terms you might use to describe the first question, you could say that “were” is an example of an irrealis mood (that is, one used to talk about hypothetical or unreal situations) and that modern English uses the modal verb “would” instead.

As TRomano suggests, though, “irrealis” is a term that comes up more often in formal studies of linguistics than in English language learning! I hesitated before including it, but since you asked for terms I thought it was worth mentioning.

An alternative term for the “were” construction is the subjunctive, but not everyone uses that name. For instance, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language reserves the term “subjunctive” for constructions like

I demand that he leave at once!

God save the Queen!

or (from the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk)

Fee, fo, fie, fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman!
Be he alive or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!

(helpfully mentioning this on p. 50 which is freely available online in sample chapter 2). This usage is not quite archaic but certainly either rather formal/literary or part of set phrases like “God save the Queen”.

There was an interesting discussion on the Language Log blog (one of whose writers is a co-author of the Cambridge Grammar) a few years ago about this sort of “were” and what to call it.

  • 1
    Huddleston and Pullum (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, 2002.85-88) do say that 'irrealis were' is not an example of the subjunctive mood, but they do not posit a separate irrealis mood. As 'were' is the only recognisable past-tense irrealis form, H & P treat it as a one-off rather than an example of a past subjunctive form. I agree that there is little point in speaking of a past subjunctive in English when there is only the one verb that has a distinct 'subjunctive' form. – tunny Oct 23 '14 at 9:54
  • Re treating it as a one-off: FWIW I agree too! – Aant Oct 23 '14 at 20:07
14

The subject is 'To expostulate (what ..., why ...)". In modern English, we'd use 'would be' rather than subjunctive 'were'.

Yes. 'is' is understood where you placed the lozenge. This process is known as 'ellipsis'.

  • +1. Thank you. Is there a name/term regarding the change verb tenses? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Oct 22 '14 at 11:52
  • Will you please to respond in your answer, and not as a comment? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Oct 22 '14 at 11:52
  • 5
    You could say that “were” is an example of an irrealis mood (that is, one used to talk about hypothetical or unreal situations) that is now archaic, and that modern English uses the modal verb “would” instead. (Note that not everyone calls the “were” construction the subjunctive.) – Aant Oct 22 '14 at 12:38
  • 1
    It may be true to say that not everyone calls the "were" construction the subjunctive. It is also true to say that hardly anyone calls it "an irrealis mood". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 22 '14 at 13:30
  • @Aant: Thanks. Would you like to recast your comment as an answer, for which I’ll happily upvote? Would you please enlarge on 'not everyone calls the “were” construction the subjunctive'? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Oct 22 '14 at 14:23
2

Is there a name/term regarding the change verb tenses? --LePressentiment.

Were is used subjunctively there, which is part of the humor. Polonius is expostulating that he is not one to expostulate.

To do X would be something that I do not intend to do.

To do X were something that I do not intend to do. (Elizabethan form).

Counterfactual statement.

enter image description here

  • I don't understand the downvote. Care to elucidate? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 22 '14 at 14:13
  • I don't either, but it wasn't from me, so I +1ed and thank you. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Oct 22 '14 at 14:24
  • Or from me! +1’d particularly for the Ngram – Aant Oct 22 '14 at 16:47
  • 2
    @LePressentiment you should upvote because YOU feel the answer deserves an upvote, not because someone else feels the answer deserves a downvote. Otherwise the whole voting process becomes ridiculous. – Dawood ibn Kareem Oct 22 '14 at 18:27
  • @DavidWallace Thank you. I should've also revealed that I did find helpful the answer and Ngram themselves. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Oct 23 '14 at 1:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.