What you need to know:
- In the Nation’s construction, the verb representing the proposed or demanded action must, therefore, remain in the infinitive.
- Being a mere infinitive, the verb cannot be touched by the rule governing the simple present third person singular.
The poet Algernon Swinburne speaks of “mystical moods and triangular tenses”.
In context, the two phrases I italicise raise many powerful ripples in the pool of life. But here we are interested only in their pedestrian meanings.
“Triangular tenses” refer to the three basic grammatical “times” called past, present and future. But between these, there are secondary ones known as “moods”, which, as Swinburne testifies, mystify us profoundly.
Recently, the Saturday Nation wrote on page one: “Internally Displaced People, including Ms Bilha Wanja, were demonstrating in the city centre to demand that the government pays them their … compensation …” “Pays” is wrong!
Ever since he started learning English, the writer has repeatedly been told that, in the simple present, a verb must take an “s” whenever controlled by the third person singular.
Here, indeed, “the government” is a singular third person. But, in that construction, are we really in the simple present? No, because the concept of simple present (or past or future) refers only to active verbs, namely, to actions that really take place.
A usual accusation is: "The government condones corruption". Whether or not the charge is justified, the statement is grammatically correct because the verb “condones” represents a simple present action by a singular third person.
But, in the Nation’s statement, to pay is a mere demand, a proposal, a wish. There is no action as yet. At best, it is a possibility that the government will pay.
The phrase “will pay” — it is tautological to say — means that the possibility of action belongs only to the future.
In the Nation’s construction, the verb representing the proposed or demanded action must, therefore, remain in the infinitive.
An infinitive is a verb before it is conjugated, that is, before a tense, a number, a person and, in many languages, even a gender has been assigned to it. All English infinitives are preceded by the word “to”.
“To pay” is the infinitive form of the verb we are discussing. The sentence should thus be: “They were demonstrating … to demand that the government to pay them their Sh35,000 compensation.”
But, in such a construction, we drop the word “to” in order to facilitate flow. Yet, even with the elision, the verb remains infinitive in content.
Thus, in the Nation’s construction, pay (not pays) is the correct usage because pay is actually an infinitive (minus “to”). The sentence should, therefore, read: “They demanded that the government pay them….” — no “s” because it is only a wished action, not a real one.
Being a mere infinitive, the verb cannot be touched by the rule governing the simple present third person singular. Grammar thus calls it a mood — rather than a tense — because it is only an attitude of the mind, only an unconjugated thought.
The subjunctive mood — as we call this — is a thought or construction whose verb expresses a mere supposition or a fear or doubt as to the truth or likelihood of what it proposes.
Philip Ochieng is a veteran journalist