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The Mood of Brexit Is More than a Grammatical Problem

The grammar of Brexit, stuck for two years in the subjunctive mood, is now aiming at a shift of moods thanks to Wednesday’s indicative vote. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary reports.

Anyone who has studied the grammar of any language in a classroom at any point in their life may remember the classification of verbs in three moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative. The idea behind the grammatical notion of “mood” hints at the perceived truth value associated with each form of the verb. The subjunctive expresses doubt or uncertainty; the indicative points toward what is true in the present; and the imperative expresses an ambition or need for future action.

After a long period dominated by the subjunctive — doubt and uncertainty about Brexit, apparently British Prime Minister Theresa May’s preferred “mood” — the UK Parliament has decided to switch to the indicative with the implicit hope that it may turn into an imperative commanding some form of coherent future action. On March 27, two days before what was initially designated as the date for the UK’s departure from the European Union, Parliament has resolved to cast what The Guardian terms “so-called indicative votes on finding a consensus Brexit solution.”

Will this be enough to end the suspense, worthy of Agatha Christie, that May has entertained right up to and, in fact, beyond the decisive moment, now grudgingly prolonged by the EU till April 12? More pertinently, will there actually be a decisive moment after which the nation passes from the indicative to the imperative?

As in this grammatical example: “Get the bleeding job done and over with, Goddammit!

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Indicative vote:

A poll taken to understand what decision should be taken by people unwilling or incapable of taking a decision

Contextual note

The mood of the nation has never been more prone to doubt and even despair. The need to become “indicative” and then “imperative” has never been more pressing. On March 23, days before the indicative votes, a massive, “very densely packed” demonstration by hundreds of thousands of opponents of Brexit occupied the streets of London. The crowd was clamoring for what is being called the “people’s vote,” the possibility of changing the result of the initial Brexit referendum on the basis of what the voters have learned in the interim.

But most politicians, starting with Prime Minister May, have been vehemently opposed to the idea of a new referendum, not because it doesn’t make sense, but because they sense that it would be perceived as a humiliating admission of the political class’s incompetence in calling for the initial referendum and its startlingly consistent ineptness in following it up.

The indicative votes to be cast on Wednesday are termed “indicative” not because they are meant to describe (or indicate) what exists, but because they point in the direction of possible and even desired action. The verb “to indicate” derives from the Latin word “index,” the finger that points in a direction. It thus literally means “to point out with one’s finger.”

The political meaning of the indicative vote will be more pointing in glaringly contradictory directions, as The Guardian’s partial list indicates: “leaving with May’s deal; leaving with membership of a customs union and/or single market; a no-deal departure; a second referendum.” The Guardian also informs us that the “various possible options and the form of voting are yet to be confirmed.”

In the end someone will be saddled with using the imperative, but no one seems to be sure who will ever have the authority to do so. Until then, it will be just a question of Parliament, the factions of May’s majority and the people in the streets (but not in the voting booth) indicating their moods.

Historical note

Several hundred years ago, the English language, for reasons that are unclear, set the subjunctive mood adrift, effectively banishing it from its shores except in very rare reminiscences of how English was spoken once upon a time. “Long live the queen” is a true subjunctive that may still be heard today, but speakers are hardly aware that its form is effectively that of the subjunctive. Otherwise, English has preferred to construct sentences beginning with “let” or (significantly in the UK today) “may” to represent ideas corresponding to the subjunctive mood in other languages. “Let there be light” and “may she reign forever” express the mood without having to transform the verb.

The language and its cultures (English, American, Australian, Canadian, etc.) appear to be content with the all-purpose indicative. This may reflect the pragmatic, active, business-oriented rather than reflective culture that prefers to see things getting done instead of wasting time deliberating about them.

It was this concern with getting things done and pushing a “deliberative” question aside to get on with business that led then-Prime Minister David Cameron to call for the initial referendum in 2016, which produced a result neither he nor the voters themselves were expecting. It opened the door for the opportunism of ambitious characters and provocateurs such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to step up and occupy front stage in an improvised comedy that no one had prepared or rehearsed. Both were surprised and embarrassed when, at the end of their Act I, the curtain instantly sprung open up again before they could leave the stage, as the public was expecting them to continue with an Act II that nobody had written.

Today, the entire political class is hoping to indicate “a consensus Brexit solution,” presumably without having to appeal to the people for a new imperative.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.