On subjunctive history…

“It’s subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined.” ― Alan Bennett, The History Boys

In language, the subjunctive mood is typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred. It is referred to in ‘The History Boys’ when looking at turning points in history and the ‘what ifs’ that lie therein. What if Hitler had got into art school? What if George Washington had died on the battlefield? What if Bernie had ran instead of Hillary?

This week saw the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America and I, like many, am truly concerned about how the next four years will pan out. He is in this position as a result of a long running democratic process yet there are many ‘what ifs’ that remain. I find myself struggling to connect the man I see babbling his narcissistic, sexist, misogynistic, racist, prejudiced and, often, ill-informed views at podiums with one of the most powerful political positions in the world. I feel there will be many ‘what ifs’ over the coming years.

Subjunctive history springs to my mind a lot when I look at the current state of affairs within our world. That being said, it also comes to mind when I look at my own personal history and how I ended up where and how I am today.


What if I hadn’t decided to travel? What if I had worked towards going to med school as I originally planned? Where would I be now if I had married my first love? What if we had never met? The potential to fall down a subjunctive history spiral is very clear.

Too often we use ‘what if’ as a negative – a daydream about what might have been if only we had made a different choice.  But the ‘what if’ doesn’t have to be negative and it doesn’t have to be about the past. ‘What if’ can be about potential. It can be about wishes and dreams and things that have yet to be. What if I try? What if I just go for it? What if I risk it? Perhaps our ‘what ifs’ should be turned into ‘let’s go’…