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“Unless he be mean, I will help him.”

“Unless he is mean, I will help him.”

Do we use the subjunctive mood? What are the verbs that require this mood? Is “unless” always followed by this mood?

(Not a native speaker for that matter***)

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  • 1
    Does your own native language do something special for situations like these? If so, could you please tell us which language yours is? Knowing this might help us provide answers better tailored to your linguistic background.
    – tchrist
    Jun 21, 2020 at 14:01
  • None of those sentences use the subjunctive. The subjunctive is this: If he were mean, I would help him. Jun 21, 2020 at 14:49
  • My first language is French.
    – Nina
    Jun 21, 2020 at 15:14
  • We say “À moins qu’il ne soit méchant, je l’aiderai.” This means “unless he is mean, I’ll help him”
    – Nina
    Jun 21, 2020 at 15:15
  • So which is correct : unless he be or unless he is?
    – Nina
    Jun 21, 2020 at 15:15

2 Answers 2

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In general we'd use the indicative ("is") in cases like this in modern English, after "unless" of "if". A modal "should" is also possible: "Unless he should be mean, I'll help him", or "if he should be mean, I won't help him".

Strictly, the present subjunctive ("be") is possible, but it sounds formal or archaic. I think it might be more common in American academic style than British English, where sounds archaic, affected or possibly legal. (See https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/subjunctive.htm - "be after if")

The background here is that the present subjective in contexts like these was more common in the past. Shakespeare gives us "If music be the food of love, play on", or this less famous example with unless:

Jack Cade: The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute;

(Henry VI, Part II: act IV, scene7, line 2735)

"Pay" is subjunctive here: the indicative, "pays", would be normal in contemporary English.

Google gave me a more recent example from a 1948 speech by General Douglas MacArthur:

“No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.”

As Jason Bassford mentions, the past subjunctive ("Unless he were mean") is also possible in this context in contemporary English, but with a hypothetical meaning: meanness is thought unlikely or impossible.

To my own (native British English) ear, something like "Unless he be willing to work for free, I won't help him" is just about possible, but it suggests formality and / or incredulity, whereas "unless he is willing to work for free, I won't help him" is matter of fact. "If need be" is still a widely used fixed expression: so "If need be, I'll help", and I suppose by extension "Unless need be, I won't help".

But in general, as a non-native, and unless you're sure, use the indicative.

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  • A good answer, but I won't upvote as I'm sure this is a duplicate. Jul 6, 2020 at 13:12
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I think the English translation is idiomatic, not equivalent. The English construction is a simple conditional, and in the spirit of a conditional statement, it might be rephrased "If he is not mean, I will help him."

A more direct translation from the French might be, "To the extent he is not mean, I will help him," and maybe the sense of the French is that "I will help him if he has not been mean," where the future aid will depend on the how mean he is judged to have been.

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