5

There is an old quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbour, tho' he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

Why are the verbs in the conditional clause in the infinitive, instead of third person singular? Old usage? Subjunctive? Neither?

  • 6
    Present subjunctive. – Anonym Oct 12 '14 at 0:48
  • 3
    As for why Emerson chose to use that diction instead of the more contemporary "If a man were to write a better book..." I think he wanted to echo the stately, authoritative tone of the King James Bible, which abounds in sentences of the type—e.g., "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar" [First Epistle of John iv 20] and "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain" Epistle of James i 26]. The King James version influenced many 19th-century writers' notions of literary gravitas. – Sven Yargs Oct 12 '14 at 1:35
  • 3
    @SvenYargs You may be right about echoing the KJV, but he did it because the consequent was in the will-future not the would-conditional. In earlier forms of English, that meant that the if-part had to be in the present subjunctive. Long, long ago “If a man be ready for it, he will leave peacefully” contrasted with “If a man were ready for it, he would leave peacefully”. – tchrist Oct 12 '14 at 2:00
  • @tchrist: One difference I belatedly recognize between the two Bible quotations I gave and the quotation from Emerson is that both of the former have the form "If a man do X, he [or his religion] is Y," while the latter has the form "If a man do X, the world will do Z." Does "will do," with its future-directed aspect, attach to the present subjunctive as satisfactorily as "is," with its current-existence aspect, does; or ought Emerson to have framed the last part of his sentence as "the world makes a beaten path to his door"? My command of tense analysis is very weak, as you can tell. – Sven Yargs Oct 12 '14 at 3:24
5

If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbour, tho' he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

It is the subjunctive used in older writings, of the type (pointed out by @tchrist) if A be X, then A will (the key here being the will future instead of would).

Similar to almost anything you read in the KJB:

Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these.

  • “If A be X, then A will whatever” is the old way, and it is not a hypothetical. “If A were X, then A would whatever” is the hypothetical version. See the difference? We now use present indicative instead of present subjunctive in the first case. So, too, does Spanish, which often confuses learners. But regular if-clauses in the present are (now, but not aforetimes) cast in the indicative mood in both languages, reserving the past subjunctive for only when there is an actual conditional following, meaning modal would in English or an -ía inflexion in Spanish. – tchrist Oct 12 '14 at 2:09
  • @tchrist - I follow up to a point, but... is it not irrealis? It is indicative subjunctive? – anongoodnurse Oct 12 '14 at 2:21
  • 1
    When the then side takes a will, the if side takes present, be it present indicative as we now use or present subjunctive as was once (more :) common. The “irrealis” thing you are talking about where we are hypothesizing about a counterfactual reality uses backshifting, which is where the “were...would” sequence comes into play. But saying “If she is ready, we will go now” does not involve anything unreal, neither now nor back when it was once phrased “If she be ready, we shall go now.” Only “If she were ready, we would go now” involves unreality. – tchrist Oct 12 '14 at 2:36
  • Those are simple forms, and adding in a perfective aspect doesn’t change the unreality bit. So the past-perfect also involves unreality: “If only she had been ready, we would have gone then.” Making it a perfect form is tougher in the present, I suppose, but it is still not unreal: “If I have been less than direct with you, it has been for none but the very best of reasons, my lady.” That version doesn’t even take a will have been in the consequent, though. In any event, it is still not unreal. English has so many conditionals that what ESLer are taught is a tragedy. – tchrist Oct 12 '14 at 2:41
  • 4
    As the old tongue twister has it. Whether the weather be fine, or whether the weather be not; we'll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not – WS2 Oct 12 '14 at 6:49
2

To complement medica's answer, and because I love trivia, I offer the following.

The original quote (in the OP's question) now updated is

Build a better mousetrap, and they will beat a path to your door

the popular advice is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it was in 1889 that Sarah Yule included it in her book (p. 138 ), Borrowings, seven years after Emerson's death in April 27, 1882. In 1912 Yule stated she had copied it from a lecture delivered by the eminent American essayist in 1871. But there is no proof that he actually wrote those lines using the present subjunctive. A considerably longer version exists in Emerson's journal entry dated 1855

I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house.

Note that Emerson used the present indicative in this instance.


sources: What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotations by Elizabeth Knowles. Bartleby.com and Wikipedia

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.