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Does this sentence have too many subjunctives?

If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king's business, that they may put it into the king's treasuries.

I am stumped by this sentence construction. First, there is "Let it be," which is a common English idiomatic phrase, but then it follows another subjunctive. Is that to say you can actually have a subjunctive followed by another subjunctive? Also, why does the sentence use "please"? If that's the subjunctive tense there, then why is it followed by another subjunctive instead of a conditional, or maybe "Let it be" is the conditional? Lastly, I wish to know how the that is used in the sentence. Perhaps, the simplified sentence can be restated like so:

Let it be decreed that they be destroyed and that they may put it into the king's treasuries.

If not, maybe the simplified sentence can be restated like so:

I will pay [insert direct object here] so that they may put it [insert prepositional phrase here].

Maybe the "so" word is eliminated and replaced by a comma?

For reference, this lengthy sentence comes from the Esther 3:9 (English Standard Version of the Holy Bible).

  • For your second question, a century or two ago, you could use "that" as the start of a noun clause. We don't do that as much these days, which is why the cumbersome expression "the fact that" is used so often today. See Ngram. I think we'd say "so that" or "in order that" today. – Peter Shor Jan 27 '14 at 16:34
  • @PeterShor I edited my post; I misplaced the word "conditional" by accident. Anyway, what is the that at the start of the sentence supposed to mean? – Double U Jan 27 '14 at 16:34
  • That would be Esther. If you want it in modern English, I'd try the GW version and the Message, here. Though some people seem to think the older versions were better (they usually weren't, and why should EME be any more authoritative than Modern English? Neither is the original, and more recent texts often show improved scholarship.) – Edwin Ashworth Jan 27 '14 at 16:35
  • @EdwinAshworth So... let's return to the line. What does the first quoted line in my post really mean, structured in that way? I use the ESV, simply because I found it on Amazon for free. That's the only reason, actually. :P – Double U Jan 27 '14 at 16:36
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    It means "I will give you 10,000 talents of silver if you let me order your soldiers to kill all the Jews." But Haman phrased it much more diplomatically. – Peter Shor Jan 27 '14 at 16:42
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Answering the question very simplistically: no. There are not too many subjunctives in the paragraph quoted.

In fact, there are only two—one of the subjunctives you highlighted is not a subjunctive, but a construction containing an auxiliary verb in the imperative + the main verb in the infinitive:

If it please(subjunctive) the king, let(imperative) it be(infinitive) decreed that they be(subjunctive) destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king's business, that they may put it into the king's treasuries.

“Let it be decreed” does not contain a subjunctive; ‘be’ here is an infinitive, morphologically speaking. Semantically speaking, the whole phrase is the third person singular inanimate passive imperative.

Some verbs, like ‘decree’ or ‘demand’ or ‘ask’, can take a subordinate clause as their object, and that subordinate clause is traditionally (though in current usage, decreasingly) in the subjunctive mood. It is thus perfectly natural to say all the following:

He decreed that they be destroyed.
She asked that he be home by 10 PM.
I demand that you be nicer to your grandmother!

(Alternatively, you can say ‘should be’, rather than use a simple subjunctive.)

In this case, ‘decree’ just happens to be in a passive form with an auxiliary verb, so that the form be shows up twice right after each other—but with different meanings: one an infinitive, one a subjunctive.

“If it please the king” would not be commonly used in current English, but traditionally, clauses headed off with ‘if’ are also in the subjunctive mood. Note that a very similar phrase still retains the subjunctive even in colloquial, modern English: if you please.

There is nothing wrong with having as many subjunctives as you want right after each other, as long as the structure of the sentences they are in requires (or allows) them; that is the case here.


As for your second question, ‘that’ here simply means ‘in order that’ or ‘so that’.

As Peter Shor said in his comment, the actual meaning of what is being said is:

I will give you 10,000 talents of silver if you let me order your soldiers to kill all the Jews.

Rephrasing slightly less, it means:

Your Majesty, if you’re willing, decree that they [the Jews] should be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver to your soldiers, so that they can put the money into your treasuries.

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    For completeness, it's worth noting that "let" is also not subjunctive, it's imperative. – James Kingsbery Jan 27 '14 at 20:35
  • Good point—adding that in. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 27 '14 at 20:54
  • The “that they may put” is also a modal plus an infinitive, though it occurs in a clause where for want of modals, Romance languages usually require a morphological subjunctive. If you hunt through Visser, you can find (mostly EME) examples of English actually doing that there, but you have to hunt for a long time. :) – tchrist Jan 27 '14 at 22:42
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    Excellent answer! I wish I had some useful point of criticism to make in this comment, but, alas, I can only meekly exclaim "+1" here. – Cerberus Jan 27 '14 at 22:44

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