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Romans 8:31 (KJV): "If God be for us, who can be against us?"

This sounds natural but old-fashioned to my ear as an English speaker, but I can't explain intellectually the reason for the subjunctive mood. If you asked me to articulate a list of common reasons for the use of the subjunctive, then the only things I could come up with would be: (1) commands and (2) counterfactuals. This isn't either of those.

So why is the subjunctive used here?

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    Formality. It's certainly very formal, at least when compared to Present-day English. And pretty rare, too. Consistent with its non-factual status, the protasis verb may be in the plain form, marking the subjunctive construction, as seen in your example.
    – BillJ
    Dec 3, 2021 at 18:39
  • There's also the shift away from the possibility of this being non-rhetorical (" 'If God is for us'? Do you think that is the case?") Dec 3, 2021 at 18:49
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    Wikipedia's article on the English subjunctive says "The subjunctive is occasionally found in clauses expressing a probable condition, such as If I be found guilty".
    – Stuart F
    Dec 3, 2021 at 18:52
  • 'Tis the season for Handel's Messiah, eh? Dec 3, 2021 at 21:13
  • Forgive me for overstating the obvious, but it sounds old-fashioned because it is. I don't know enough about why fashions changed, but Shakespeare is constantly using this, even for certainties, as long as they're expressed as hypotheses using "if" (to the point of absurdist wordplay in As You Like It, for instance). Dec 3, 2021 at 21:21

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This attempt at a self-answer may be completely wrong. I originally wrote it as an edit to the question, but it seems more sensible to post it as a self-answer and see what people think.

Stuart F suggests in comments that the subjunctive may be used here to describe a condition that is "probable." If that applies here, then I feel that a satisfying answer should explain when we would not use the subjunctive for a condition. Actually the quote from Romans doesn't suggest to me at all that the hypothesis is only probable -- the speaker is certain of the hypothesis. I don't know, maybe it suggests hypothetical uncertainty on an impersonal basis, or implicitly attributes that uncertainty to someone else.

For example, I could write this: "Given President Smith's conduct, impeachment follows as the night follows the day. If two plus two be four, then she deserves impeachment." This seems correct to my ear, and yet there is no uncertainty about whether 2+2=4, only a rhetorical strategy of supposing that some unnamed person might have all sorts of absurd doubts.

How about this? "My dog barks at the mailman. If she bark at him today, I will give her a time-out in the laundry room." This sounds off to me. I'm not sure if it's because the apodosis is personal rather than impersonal. Maybe the subjunctive sounds wrong here because doubt about the condition isn't necessary to the sense of the sentence -- there is no hypothetical person saying, "Aw, maybe she won't bark."

This sounds much more natural to me: "My dog barks at the mailman. If she bark at him today, then may she suffer a time-out in the laundry room." I'm not sure if it sounds right because the archaic tone is more uniform. I think the reason it sounds right may rather be that the apodosis is impersonal.

Maybe the formula here is that (1) the subjunctive introduces hypothetical doubt about the condition (but not necessarily doubt by the speaker); (2) the doubt is necessary to the sense; but (3) such a construction simultaneously requires the depersonalization the apodosis.

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  • I'd agree (in fact I essentially commented as much), but the ELU format is not geared to unsupported answers or to opinion (so 'This attempt at a self-answer may be completely wrong' cannot be part of a good answer here). I'd also want the question to be 'What was the reason for using the subjunctive here?' or 'Why has the formulaic subjunctive survived here?' Dec 3, 2021 at 20:17
  • Note that the subjunctive is a grammatical phenomenon; it refers to choice of verb and inflection in certain syntactic constructions. It is not used "for a reason" beyond being required by the choice of verb and construction. It is not really productive in English any more, and therefore there are no Modern English rules for its correct use; if it's part of a fixed phrase or proverb, or if it's required by a construction or a predicate, it's required; otherwise it's not allowed. Except for a very few cases with a very few verbs. Dec 3, 2021 at 21:41

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