ESL Teaching Technique Formulaic Subjunctives at Wikia

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Formulaic subjunctives


If your student sneezed in class, what would you say?
A. God bless you.
B. God blesses you.

Would you say "God blesses you?" because you are a language teacher and know you need -s for 3rd person singular?

  • Think of the difference between two sentences.

→The sentence A contains a wish, even though the speaker is not sure if that will happen or not.
→The sentence B does not containing any meaning of wish. It's a statement.

What are formulaic subjunctives?

English has a small set of phrases that are so old that they still contain uniquely marked subjunctive verbs. These utterances are often as part of religious liturgy.

Form: 1) no ‘s’ is added in 3rd person singular
2) ‘be’ verb (is, are) remains ‘be’ for all forms in present tense
3) May + subject + verb for wish

Meaning: Mainly when talking about events that somebody:
wants to happen / hopes will happen / imagines happening


1. God save the Queen!

Meaning: I wish that God will save the Queen.
e.g.(the national anthem of the U.K)

2. (May) Heaven forbid, God forbid

Meaning: I do not want something to happen.
e.g. Heaven forbid, she will tell him.

3. if need be

Meaning: If it’s necessary
e.g. If need be, we'll rent a car.

4. be that as it may

Meaning: Despite that, nevertheless
e.g. I accept that he’s not friendly, be that as it may, he’s a smart manager.

5. far be it from me

Meaning: I don’t want to../ intend to..
e.g. Far be it from me to complain, but it’s hot here.

6. so be it

Meaning: Let it be (that way)
e.g. Will the company lose money by doing this? So be it, then.
e.g. So be it, Jedi. -Star wars | Watch video
e.g. If Civil War, So Be It. -Time, 1973

7. suffice it to say that

Meaning: It is enough to say and no more
e.g. Suffice it to say that afterwards we never met again.
e.g. Suffice to say it's the number one investigation at the moment.

Discussion questions

1.When do you use the formulaic subjunctives? Formal / Informal?, Spoken / Written?

* Many of the formulaic subjunctives are informal and casual, so they are used more in spoken language than written language.

2.Why do you use them? For emphasis / for efficiency?

* Formulaic subjunctives are often used to emphasize. For example, if you use 'Heaven forbid' at the beginning of your sentence, you might wanted to emphaize what you are going to say, wishing not to happen.
* Perhaps formulaic subjunctives are used for efficiency. For example, say "so be it" and "Let it happen" or "Let it be that way". Saying "so be it" is much easier to say. People want to say words or sentences with least effort for linguistic efficiency.

3.How can ESL/EFL learners learn them? By analyzing / By memorizing?

* Learners might complain if they have to just memorize the formulaic subjunctives. But they have to do so becasue the formulaic subjuncties are set phrases from very old time. They work like idioms.


Berk LM (1999). English syntax: from word to discourse(New York: Oxford University Press.

Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999). The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher's Course (2nd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

--Anesscho 03:35, 27 June 2008 (UTC)

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