So there's this usage of what seems to be the present subjunctive that I haven't been able to find references on:

A: "He said he was going to kill you."

B: "What? He kill me? Fat chance!"


B: "What? Him kill me? Fat chance!"

Now, I was under the impression that the subjunctive no longer appears in contemporary English outside of idiom and specific subordinate constructions. But here, kill appears in the main clause and seems to be a free use of the subjunctive (entertaining a hypothetical future action). I also can't imagine the present indicative being used instead, unless one is asking a declarative question about a future progression of events.

Does this usage have a name? Any references would be much appreciated.

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    No, it's not subjunctive, not that it would make a difference what you call it. It's a special construction -- a hypothetical question, I think, not a declarative; note the question mark and the intonation, and it's limited to precisely this situation. It requires question intonation, expresses disbelief, and summarizes the situation being doubted. There's a subject, which is objective (him) if it's a pronoun; and there's a simple infinitive as verb phrase. No progressives, no perfects, no present tense, no past tense. Related construction: What? Me worry? – John Lawler May 11 '14 at 0:32
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    Me fail English? That's unpossible! – phenry Jun 13 '14 at 16:30
  • @JohnLawler Thanks for the comment! It helped lead me to my own answer below. – ephemeralist Aug 6 '14 at 13:16
  • @ephemeralist: Alas, then, I have unwittingly led you astray, since there is no subjunctive in English. – John Lawler Aug 6 '14 at 13:52
  • @JohnLawler I'm confused. I thought I was agreeing with you in my answer that this is not subjunctive. – ephemeralist Aug 6 '14 at 16:12

I've reflected on @JohnLawler's comment, and I now agree that this construction is a bare infinitive phrase with an overt subject, together functioning as a single unit. However, I disagree that a pronoun, if used, should be objective. I say this after realizing that this same construction can be used, if informally, in the questions How about X? and Why not X?

How about I go instead? / Why not I go instead?

How about I be here and you be there? / Why not I be here and you be there?

How about he do it instead? / Why not he do it instead?

In all instances, we use this construction to propose a hypothetical action of someone. The subjective case is heavily favored, and a finite verb seems at least suspect in the 3rd instance (?How about he does it instead?) and outright impossible in the 2nd (*How about I am here and you are there?).

Applying this to a question in the declarative form, we can then say that the example sentence in the question is no different from What? X? Fat chance! where X just happens to be the non-finite phrase He (to) kill me.

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  • Why not I go instead? is simply a question without subject-verb inversion (and therefore without Do-support). Same for the second example. The third one Why not he do it instead? is ungrammatical. Not all rules can be ignored. If you're gonna play with idioms, you're gonna generate ungrammatical sentences. – John Lawler Aug 6 '14 at 16:17

Yes, this is a present subjunctive. According to Wikipedia:

A present subjunctive verb form is sometimes found in a main clause, with the force of a wish or a third-person imperative (and such forms can alternatively be analyzed as imperatives). This is most common nowadays in established phrases, such as (God) bless you, God save the Queen, heaven forbid, peace be with you, truth be told, so be it, suffice it to say, long live..., woe betide... It can be found used more broadly in some archaic English.[6] An equivalent construction is that with may and subject-verb inversion: May God bless you etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

This becomes clearer if we make some small changes to the example construction. Consider the following:

D: "What [did he say]? He [would] kill me? [That is a] fat chance!"

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    ". . . with the force of a wish or a third-person imperative . . ." -- Are you suggesting that the speaker is wishing for himself to be killed? Or is ordering the other person to kill him? – F.E. Jul 31 '14 at 19:12
  • It really can't be a main clause with a subject him. And subject he is ungrammatical. However, if you want to call it "subjunctive", go ahead. There is no consistent definition of "subjunctive" in English that will include only those constructions that people describe as "subjunctive" and exclude those that they don't. That's because people can call anything "subjunctive" and everyone will nod. Problem solved; there's a name for it. – John Lawler Aug 6 '14 at 13:51

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