The Subjunctive Thing

In yesterday’s post—part of my before-reality-sets-in idealistic lunacy—I briefly mentioned the subjunctive mood while talking about inferential statistics. That deserves a little elaboration. (I elaborated on it quite a bit in a paper (here, so you can read that if you wish. This is shorter.)

The subjunctive mood is the bane of many language students. One of the reasons is that in English, the subjunctive is becoming invisible. It still exists in a few places (“If I were to give you an A for that work, I would be doing you a disservice” is correct, if pompous) but even that construction is vanishing (“If she was teaching summer school, she couldn’t go to Hawaii” sounds increasingly OK).

One of the reasons to use the subjunctive is to express something contrary to fact. That is, I’m not giving you an A. She is not teaching summer school. It also expresses something you might do in the future, when you’re not sure of the outcome: If I were to give you a puppy, would you love me forever?

Aside. Note that we could also say, “If I gave you a puppy, would you love me forever?” In that sentence, gave is subjunctive, but it looks just like past tense even though it’s in the future. That’s one reason it’s hard to identify subjunctive in English. Note how the indicative If I give you a puppy, will you love me forever? seems different: it’s more an offer than a hypothetical.

Statistical inference is fundamentally subjunctive: we’re saying, if Belinda had no power and if she were to flip 20 coins over and over, how often would she get 16 heads? It’s a hypothetical question. In an orthodox stats class, you would hardly ever flip actual coins; but using George-Cobb-inspired randomization tests, that’s exactly what we do (in simulation at least) all the time. We take the contrary-to-fact subjunctive and make it real.

I claim that one of the things that makes inferential statistics hard is that the machinery is based on a strange, hypothetical, subjunctive, contrary-to-fact set of assumptions and procedures that none of us are well-equipped to understand for more than about 30 seconds at a stretch. So to the extent that we can alleviate some of the unreality, students will have a better chance of understanding what it’s all about.

Do I have evidence for this claim? I do not. I will at least get some insight into it next year. With a real class, I wonder if I will see any evidence one way or the other…


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Tim Erickson

Math-science ed freelancer and sometime math teacher. In 2014–15, at Mills College in Oakland, California.

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