Hortatory Subjunctive

If you’ve never heard the term and, therefore, think you have no idea what hortatory subjunctive refers to, you’re not alone. If, however, you’re of the generation that took Latin in high school (I’m of the generation, but not the course), you may at least recognize hortatory as Latin. And though the grammatical term may not be familiar, you’ll recognize its application.

Hortatory is one of three Latin words that means encourage or incite. Subjunctive refers to the mood, which is not unique to Latin grammar. In addition to tense, verbs also indicate mood — “the manner in which a verb expresses an action or state of being.”* English grammar identifies three moods or modes: indicative—stating fact or opinion; imperative — a command, request, or exclamation; and subjunctive — a wish or hope or hypothetical.

So a hortatory subjunctive is a phrase or statement that encourages or incites to an as yet unrealized situation such as:

a hortatory subjunctive is a phrase or statement that encourages or incites to an as yet unrealized situation Click To Tweet
  • Let us endeavor to persevere.
  • May the road rise to meet you.

Otherwise known as the Salad Subjunctive

Hortatory subjunctive is easy to spot because it is always a first person plural subject — us. Scripture contains many such statements:

  • Beloved, let us love one another.
  • Let us run the race that is before us.
  • Come now, let us reason together.

You may use this or similar phrasing in your writing — especially if you’re a nonfiction writer urging readers to a particular course of action. Trust your ear. You’re most likely using the hortative subjunctive correctly.

But here’s a tip: Note the consistent “Let us” construction. So, if hortatory subjunctive is more Latin than you care to remember, think of this as the Salad Subjunctive. (I can wait for your groan.)

The other thing to remember about the subjunctive mood — and this is one of those grammar areas in which the ground is shifting — is that it is used in the hypothetical or contrary-to-fact situations. Think Tevye’s wishful lyrics in Fiddler on the Roof–“If I Were a Rich Man”– and remember that the verb is usually in the past tense, except in the lettuce .. er … “let us” subjunctives. Chew on that for awhile.

*Chicago Manual of Style 17th edition

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