Semantics and syntax in Old English mood selection

Howard Jones, Morgan Macleod

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A principled model of mood selection in Old English (OE) has long proved elusive. We analyse the distribution of the indicative and subjunctive in the OE Bede in light of the Latin original, the syntactic construction, and a semantic model of modality which classifies clauses according to whether the situation is represented as holding in the actual world or in a possible world. The choice of mood in the Latin and OE Bede differs enough to rule out slavish imitation. In certain clauses, such as result and purpose clauses, the construction type, modality, and grammatical mood all match; however, in other clauses, such as concessives, the OE subjunctive is systematically used whether the situation is represented as actual or possible. Where the grammatical mood of OE forms is ambiguous, modal verbs are often seemingly used as a substitute for the subjunctive. Our results show that while the choice of mood in the OE Bede largely correlates with the syntactic construction, the subjunctive is close to being semantically redundant. This growing redundancy may have been one of the factors in the diminishing role of inflectional mood in the later history of English.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)304-339
Number of pages36
JournalTransactions of the Philological Society
Issue number2
Early online date29 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Jul 2020


  • mood
  • subjunctive
  • Old English
  • Latin
  • Bede
  • semantics


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