The Audel’s “Carpenters and Builders Guide #1”, published in 1923, is a stern and didactic trade manual, and sometimes sounds a bit archaic. The subjunctive appears many times: “In case the item be not found…” and near poetry crops up: “With careful use a good take-down square should not get out of truth.”
But one usage in particular seems wrong and yet sounds right. It happens too many times to be a typo, plus the whole tone of the writing is too proper and forthright to admit any casual language. Here are some examples:
“If the saw tend to run off the line…slightly twist the blade…”
“A good cleaning… will usually restore its cutting properties, but if it do not then scour the stone…”
“If the saw have an even tension, put it on the mandrel and run it up to speed. If it run steady and true, it is ready for fitting.” (my italics)
The subject and verb are out of agreement, plain enough. But there’s something about it that seems right, something I’ve read before, and I don’t know what it is. Inserting the word should before the verbs (“If the saw should tend”) saitisfies in three of the cases above- I wonder is this some kind of subjunctive?
Seeing something like that today, I would wonder too. (And if part of the ‘free style’ English on the Chinese product packagings, it’s almost certainly an error. Or else, accidental subjunctive ?)
But given the date and how they sound, there should be no doubt that the stuffs you are describing were keen demonstrations of the subjunctive. For their rarity, they are worth framing for posterity.
To be sure, the English subjunctive in general is not disappearing or rare, despite the many claims to the contrary. Instances with the infinitive ‘be,’ the ‘were’ form, and the ‘should’ form as you have noted, are all abundantly used in our daily speeches and writings. Only the ‘naked’ infinitives (like in your documents) have become nearly nonexistent, or rather, all superseded by the conjugated forms.
Those subjunctives are somewhat overdone and hypercorrected, even by 1920’s standards.
The subjunctive has always been appropriate in situations where the condition is counterfactual or extremely unlikely. In each of these sentences the condition is fairly likely. A saw needs sharpening most of the time, maybe always if you want to be superfussy. A drill can get out of true several times a day.
Putting it another way, those IFS could be switched to WHENS without destroying the meaning. That’s a good sign that you don’t need the subjunctive.
When the saw tends to run off the line…slightly twist the blade.
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