“Honoring the Subjunctive” — Lydia Davis

“Honoring the Subjunctive,” a very short story by Lydia Davis, from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

It invariably precedes, even if it do not altogether supersede, the determination of what is absolutely desirable and just.


4 thoughts on ““Honoring the Subjunctive” — Lydia Davis”

  1. Is that quotation the whole thing about this article? I don’t even think the “do” is necessary in the quotation. It could just say “even if it not altogether supercede” wherein the subjunctive verb is “supercede”. The periphrastic present subjunctive is rare. I’ve only seen one example in Shakespeare’s oeuvres. I think it was “if he do bleed” or something. I would just drop the “do”. One could use the past periphrastic subjunctive though very commonly: “even if it did not altogether supercede”. I guess to each his own, right? Thanks.


    1. Hi, Nick —
      “Honoring the Subjunctive” is one of Lydia Davis’s “stories” (if it can be called one). Even though part of my job requires me to teach grammar, I’m pretty terrible at it. I think Davis is trying to shock readers with how she’s used “do,” which, at first glance, appears to disagree in number with “it.” I think she’s doing this to call attention to how little many of us know about grammar.


  2. I mean, I know English grammar very well. It’s my major after all, and I am not arguing that it is wrong. I think, grammatically, the “do” in “if it do not” is correct; I just think it’s periphrastic and unnecessary in the modern English subjunctive. Most people who are taught the subjunctive today are told that an auxiliary “do” is not necessary before the “not” of a subjunctive verb.

    It’s not incorrect, though. As I’ve said before, Shakespeare said “if he do bleed”. I think it’s just rare and archaic. If I wanted to put that statement in a present subjunctive form, I would say, “even if it not altogether supercede” or “even if it should not altogether supercede”, but I would never say “do” unless I were being very, very archaic–Shakespearean archaic. I might start throwing “doth” around a little then as in, “Hark! A suitor doth approach.”


  3. This short story is in fact a fragment of John Ruskin’s works. It is the title, performing the very action of ‘honoring the [Victorian] subjunctive’ that makes it Davis’ story.


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