AUTHOR: Dreer, Igor.
TITLE: Expressing the Same by the Different
SUBTITLE: The Subjunctive vs the Indicative in French
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Dr Joseph Reisdoerfer, Université du Luxembourg and Athénée de Luxembourg.
I would like to commence my review of Igor Dreer's study on the use of the
subjunctive vs the indicative in French by quoting professor Olivier Soutet:
''Depuis environ plus d'un siècle, grammairiens et linguistes sont, sans cesse et
à un rythme soutenu, revenus sur la question des emplois et valeurs du
subjonctif français, nourrissant, par-delà les générations, des dialogues et des
querelles qui témoignent autant de leur souci de comprendre que de la difficulté
du sujet'' (Soutet 2000: 1).
Dreer has ventured to tackle an interesting but most difficult subject, using
the methodological frame set up by the Columbia School founded by the late
The first part of the study (pp. 3-51) examines different traditional
sentence-oriented approaches to the problem of French mood, such as the
syntactic approach (pp. 4-9) which explains the subjunctive in the subordinate
clause by syntactical or lexical triggers in the main clause: il faudra ( =
trigger) que tu viennes (subjunctive).
In the second part (pp. 55-81) the sentence-oriented approaches are rejected in
favor of a sign-oriented approach as the Columbia School has developed it.
According to Dreer the subjunctive is defined as a sign with the invariant
signified 'alternative to occurrence' i.e. ''the contextual implication of an
expectation to the contrary of whatever is expressed by the Subjunctive, i. e. a
departure from the encoder's expectations'' (p.76) opposed to the sign indicative
meaning 'occurrence' i.e. ''a situation, experienced in the present or the past,
or expected to take place in the future ...'' (p.76).
Part III (pp. 83-164), the central part of the study, consists of a series of
very detailed microanalyses by which Dreer tries to show that the distribution
of the indicative and the subjunctive in subordinate clauses introduced by verbs
expressing doubt (pp. 89-91) and volition (pp. 91-96), in concessive clauses
(pp. 156-157) is to be explained by the invariant meaning of these moods,
'occurrence' for the indicative and 'alternative to occurrence' for the
subjunctive. So in a sentence found in the French newspaper Le Monde (16/09/05;
Dreer p. 158) ''A l'issue d'un déjeuner avec ses homologues nippon et sud-coréen,
l'émissaire américain n'a pas voulu se prononcer sur la suite des discussions
... M. Hill a également n i é que les Etats-Unis soient le seul participant aux
discussions à rejeter la demande d'un réacteur, comme l'affirme Pyongyang.'' the
subjunctive, meaning 'alternative to occurrence', emphasizes the denial whereas
in the example ''Lance Armstrong avait alors répondu à la place de son ami
néerlandais, affirmant: 'Le cyclisme est assurément un sport qui a eu ses
problèmes – de dopage – mais qui peut n i e r que nous l'avons nettoyé?''' (Le
Monde 16/09/05; Dreer p. 158 ) the indicative meaning 'occurrence' reinforces
the assertion: Armstrong insists on the fact that the sport of cycling is free
from doping problems.
The fourth part (pp. 165-196) presents a series of macroanalyses on the use of
the subjunctive and the indicative. Dreer applies two different approaches, the
first called ''from sign to text'', the second ''from text to sign''. Thus, in
Simenon's novel Le revolver de Maigret, the subjunctive meaning 'alternative to
occurrence' is predominant in the introduction, the part of the text where
inquiries are made and questions asked, whereas the indicative meaning
'occurrence' plays the important part in the outset of the story where answers
are given (pp.174-179). The play Antigone by Jean Anouilh is studied according
to the ''from text to sign'' approach. The character who opposes the dominant
power, Antigone, will have much recourse to the subjunctive, but the chorus, who
knows, who represents destiny, prefers the indicative. (pp.182-196).
The fifth section gives a diachronic outline of the use of the subjunctive in
French (pp. 197-254). The author first wants to explain how the use of the
subjunctive in general, that of the subjunctive imperfect and the pluperfect in
particular, have decreased over time. He thinks that in Old French the
subjunctive had the much broader meaning of 'occurrence questioned' relating to
an event happening differently or not happening; during the transition from Old
French to Modern French this meaning was narrowed to 'alternative to
occurrence', a narrowing which would account for the decline of the subjunctive
(pp. 207-215). To explain the decreasing use of the imperfect subjunctive, Dreer
postulates that the subjunctive mode participates in the system of relevance
(''An occurrence is relevant to the encoder, if the latter is involved directly
in its realization or manifests his/her interest in its possible outcome. ''
Dreer 2007: 223) and that subjunctive present means 'alternative to
occurrence'/'more relevant' whereas subjunctive imperfect stands for
'alternative to occurrence'/'less relevant (pp. 207-221). He thinks that the
meanings 'alternative to occurrence' and 'less relevant' of the subjunctive
imperfect could explain the near disappearance of these forms in spoken and
written French. (for details, cf. p. 253).
In the larger part of the section he compares by micro- and macroanlyses the use
of the different forms of the subjunctive in Modern and Old French. (pp.
223-229, 231-237, 239-247, 249-254).
Final remarks summarizing the results of the study and giving a few outlooks for
new research conclude the study (pp. 255-258).
This study, based on a PhD-thesis entitled ''The Significance of an Alternative
in Linguistic Analysis: The Subjunctive versus the Indicative in French. A
Sign-Oriented Approach'' presented in 2006 at the Ben-Gurion University of the
Negev, Israel, gives a stimulating description, coherent from the point of view
of Columbia School theory, of the use of the subjunctive in Modern and Old
French. Unfortunately, the author does not always support his explanations by
linguistic data drawn from a scientifically built up language database and never
ventures to depart from Columbia School theory, even when it becomes clear that
the approach is inoperative.
Dreer has written a strongly structured and detailed study on the use of the
subjunctive, which in the frame of the Columbia School theory has an undeniable
logic. In sentences where the speaker actually has the choice between indicative
and subjunctive, for example after verba sentiendi and dicendi accompanied by a
negation (pp. 148-153; Cf. Grevisse and Goosse 2008: § 1126b, 1458-1459),
Dreer's approach generally gives an elegant explanation of the mood chosen.
The presentation is impeccable and the only reproach to be leveled are the
endless repetitions, summaries and multiple references to Columbia School theory
that betray the academic origin of the book. The author should have reworked his
thesis and removed the academic jumble rendering his study more readable for the
But some problems arise when the abstract framework set by Columbia School
theory is discarded and the reader simply focuses on the linguistic facts the
author tries to explain and the linguistic data used. First the assumptions made
by the author, i. e. the indicative is a sign with the signified 'occurrence'
opposed to the subjunctive sign meaning 'alternative to occurrence', should have
been validated by linguistic data, i. e. a corpus of sentences collected in a
database and subjected to a statistical treatment.
Dreer is in full agreement with this procedure and he has set up a corpus
largely based on twentieth-century French literary texts – pp. 80, 266-268 –
which he subjects to a statistical treatment: ''The Columbia School also relies
extensively 'on quantitative methods of validation' showing 'a statistical
skewing in favor of one or the other meaning' '' (p. 73; cf. also p. 164).
Unfortunately the author does not always put this excellent protocol into
practice. Dreer explains nowhere how he has assembled the corpus, if it has been
computerized and by what methods and what software he has used to explore it. A
general presentation of all the data provided by the corpus, possibly on CD-ROM,
would also have been most welcome.
One may also wonder why the author did not simply use the important corpus
Frantext freely available in many university libraries (On Frantext, cf.
http://www.atilf.fr/frantext.htm). The main reproach to be directed at the study
however is that the author has not completed his corpus mostly based on literary
texts by a second corpus closer to spoken language, which would have given a
more nuanced and deeper understanding of the patterns and trends of the
opposition indicative/subjunctive in Modern French.
In some parts of the study, where quantitative data would have been in
contradiction with the author's assumptions, he simply shuns exploitation of
quantitative data. Analyzing verbs and expressions of will usually followed by
subjunctive only (up to 98.6%, according to Nordahl 1969: 74, quoted by Dreer
himself p. 96 –Cf. also Togeby et al 1982: II 103-107 § 691-692) he gives no
quantitative data but discusses very specific examples followed by the
indicative suggesting that the speaker actually has the choice between
indicative and subjunctive: ''Des paumés comme toi, des mal habillés, je veux
qu'on les voit venir de loin'' (Marcel Aymé, La traversée de Paris, Dreer: p. 88
– ''voit'' could be a misprint); ''En s'adressant une dernière fois au tribunal, le
guide a déclaré: «A toutes les familles touchées ... je souhaite que le temps
leur permettra d'entendre ce que je vais leur dire: je leur demande pardon''
(Libération 30-31 X 1999, Dreer p. 95 - on souhaiter + indicative future, cf.
Togeby et al 1982: II 105-106 § 691).
After verbs and expressions of volition, where in fact no choice exists and the
subjunctive is automatically triggered by the introducing verb or expression,
the opposition indicative/subjunctive has been neutralized and the subjunctive
has become primarily a conjunctivus strengthening the coherence of the sentence.
I wonder if we are not dealing here with the phenomenon of grammaticalization.
The use of the indicative and the subjunctive in subordinate clauses is a
complex phenomenon that cannot be apprehended by a single point of view. The
approach of Columbia School applied here by Igor Dreer, which in fact elegantly
enlightens some aspects of this phenomenon, is inoperative on others. In my
opinion a broader approach could have yielded more satisfying results.
Grevisse, Maurice and André Goosse. 2008. _Le bon usage. Grammaire française_.
Bruxelles: De Boeck Duculot.
Nordahl, Helge. 1969. _Les systèmes du subjonctif corrélatif. Etude sur l'emploi
des modes dans la subordonnée complétive en français moderne_. Diss Bergen 1969,
Soutet, Olivier. 2000. _Le subjonctif en français_. Paris: Editions Ophrys.
Togeby, Knud, Magnus Berg, Ghani Merad, and Ebbe Spang-Hanssen. 1982. _Grammaire
française_. Copenhague: Akademisk Forlag.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Joseph Reisdoerfer studied Classics and French in Germany (Heidelberg) and
France (Angers Reims, Nancy, Paris) and holds PhDs in French literature (Nancy
2), linguistics (Nancy 2) and Latin (Paris X Nanterre). He teaches French
linguistics at the Université du Luxembourg and Classics and French at the
Athénée de Luxembourg.