Friday, August 3, 2012

Against the Subjunctive Mood in Academic Writing

I've noticed lately that in much of my academic reading the overriding style of writing is in the subjunctive mood. "One might argue," "one could say," that sort of thing. It's in books, journal articles, reviews, dissertation drafts -- it's ubiquitous. And not only do graduate students, or young or inexperienced (or simply bad!) scholars, succumb to the temptation; senior faculty, acclaimed professors, influential thinkers: they all do it. At times it even feels like a self-conscious, intentional style.

And that is a mistake. Consistent use of the subjunctive mood when making arguments is the worst kind of academic tic. It signals one of two things, both of which ought to be avoided. The first is a posture, an unattractive timidity or perhaps false humility in arguing a point, outlining a position, or critiquing an idea. For example: "One might say that the position I am arguing for is a better alternative than the one just discussed." Well, is it? Would anyone say that, or just some people? If the latter, which people? Are you willing to say it? And are you arguing for it, or simply floating a trial balloon to see what (real) others think?

The second thing indicated by this style is more substantive, but for that it is much worse. In effect, what the subjunctive argumentative approach does is supplant actual argument. What one finds in academic texts is an essay or chapter in which, paragraph after paragraph, the author tells you what s/he is going to do, plans to do, hopes to do in the course of the text; and yet, by the end, you realize that s/he has not in fact "done" anything at all, except talk about the possibility of "doing" something. To be sure, there may have been some kind of summary of others' work, or descriptive analysis of a situation or challenge to be addressed. But instead of the substance of an actual argument (whether for or against something), one finds sprinkled here and there one-off comments in the subjunctive mood: "One could argue that x position fails to account for y issue due to z problem." Does this suggested argument make an actual appearance? Does the author undertake the hard task of actually making the case s/he has suggested could be made? Of course not.

The most maddening instances are those where the subjunctive mood is complemented by a sort of infinite deferral of unreadiness: "One might argue that . . . But to do so would require more space (or expertise) than I have, so . . ." Or: "One could say that . . . But that would go far beyond the scope of this work . . ." Or: "An argument could be made that . . . But before I take up that question, let us look at . . ." Authors forever bound by the limitless possibilities offered by the subjunctive style find that they are never quite prepared to say anything, only to suggest what might be said in a different essay, by a different person, with different concerns or education or interests.

Which raises the question: How can I get my hands on that person's writing? With all the time in the world, without restrictions of time or knowledge, focused on answering questions they themselves have raised: it almost sounds like a positive position -- a constructive idea -- an argument in the active mood.

Now that sounds like a text worth reading.


  1. Many thanks! I also left out one of the most egregious examples, the infamous unnamed majority subjunctive. E.g.: "Many would say . . ." or "An idea many would call uninformed . . ." Who is this "many"? Does it include the author? Why are they anonymous? How can we contact them? Are they in hiding?

  2. One might say (I am saying it now, after all) that a summary of this post might be: Stick your neck out!

    Would that be apt? (Great post!)

  3. Agreed. Although it is contagious,... I find myself doing it in first drafts because you become accustomed to the sound of it in academic reading.

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