I was driving home after teaching one Sunday and listening to the TED Radio Hour. Hosted by Guy Raz, the show features a few TED talks each week, woven together thematically in often surprising ways. Guy plays snippets from the talks and interviews the presenters a bit. I always enjoy it.

On this particular day, I caught Guy in the middle of his interview with Phuc Tran, whose TED talk is titled,

Does The Subjunctive Have A Dark Side?

You can find it here, in its entirety. (That font makes the whole thing look ominous, doesn’t it?)

Tran is a self-proclaimed grammar nerd and is multilingual. In his talk he explores the impact of the English subjunctive mood, described in Wikipedia as: used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. These include statements about one’s state of mind, such as opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire.

Tran’s family is from Vietnam and although he was bilingual as a child, his parents only spoke Vietnamese. In the part of the interview I caught on my car ride, he told the story of his family trying to flee war-ravaged Vietnam. They were meant to catch a bus, he threw a temper tantrum so they had to wait for the next bus and (spoiler alert) the bus they were supposed to have caught was attacked. Had Tran not thrown that tantrum, he and his entire family would likely have died.

Tran speaks of how much he’d mulled over that possibility in his head – what if he hadn’t thrown that fit? Tran’s parents, on the other hand, never considered the possibility that anything else but what happened could have happened. Because in the Vietnamese language, there is no subjunctive mood. They don’t have the theoretical and linguistic framework to wonder what might have happened. They think only in terms of what actually did occur.

I haven’t stopped thinking about Tran’s talk. As someone prone to anxiety and rumination, the idea that I could simply not have the ability to conceive of anything but what actually is or was … it’s mighty alluring. My brain loves the subjunctive mood.

Last week my family and I were at the beach. My daughter M and I were running along the edge of the ocean so that the very cold Atlantic water would sometimes tickle our feet and sometimes make it all the way up our calves. The sun was brilliant, the sky was cloudless and we were as close to bliss as a mom and daughter can get.

Then, her brand new hat flew off her head and got pulled out by a wave. I managed to jump in and save it. The hat was wet but fine. When I returned it to her, though, she was very upset.

“Your hat is fine, sweetie.”

“But Mommy,” she said, “it could have gotten lost. I could have lost it.”

Her hat was fine. But even just the idea that something other than what happened could have happened upset her.

It was just an isolated incident for her, but it that moment I saw so many years of my own rumination and anxiety reflected back at me. So I think Tran’s on to something pretty profound. The subjunctive can have a dark side. But, I don’t think I’m powerless against it anymore.

On that note, I can’t wait to tell you about the book I’ve been reading. So, for now:



Tran’s central premise is not without its critics. This is an especially thoughtful reaction to it by Asya Pereltsvaig, a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University. She suggests that Tran’s parents’ inability to fathom the “what if” in the bus situation is more a result of culture than language. For my purposes, it really doesn’t matter, because I am most interested in cultivating a mind that doesn’t go beyond the present facts. Still, her commentary is well worth the read.

One Response to “Ifs Thens and What Might Have Happened”

  1. on 20 Sep 2017 at 9:34 amBrent Robison

    I’m wondering why there appear to be no comments on this post…?
    I gather you’ve changed your blogging topic, which is fine with me; I may not be part of your usual readership. I like this topic. I’ve been thinking along these lines also since coming across the term “counterfactual thinking.” I’m very aware that “loving what is” is a characteristic of the awakened individual (or enlightened if you prefer), and I know that too much suffering in my own life has come from my inability to fully embrace “isness.” I presume that’s at the root of your statement, “I am most interested in cultivating a mind that doesn’t go beyond the present facts.” But I’m interested in how you would see yourself continuing as a fiction writer without “what ifs.” Can it be done? Somehow I think not. Yes, the subjunctive has a dark side and I’m glad you feel no longer “powerless against it.” But I might suggest “against it” is the wrong stance. Maybe it’s the kind of force that feeds on conflict, grows stronger by being opposed. Perhaps simple awareness, shining the light of non-judgmental witness into the dark corners is what removes their power. I think of my roaming, speculative mind as both my angel and my devil, my live-giver and my death-dealer. So be it. Part of my practice (writing and psychological) is to embrace my shadow, as a step toward health. Ah, now we’re back on your topic! 🙂
    Apologies for the long ramble. It could have been longer, but… deadlines. I hope you’ll respond.

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