The Hortatory Subjunctive Defense

First there was President Clinton's defense during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in which he raised the issue of the meaning of "is." Now we have the "hortatory subjunctive" defense.

General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan appeared Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to testify about comments she made to federal investigators, who ruled last month that she violated a law that limits political activity in government. One contentious issue had to do with a comment she made to investigators regarding GSA employees, who had testified that Doan asked at a meeting of GSA political appointees how the agency could help Republican candidates. Investigators included in their report last month that Doan claimed the GSA employees who testified she asked that did so because they were biased and poor performers who needed "extensive rehabilitation."

In trying to explain those comments, Doan testified Wednesday that she struggles with verb tense as well as personal pronouns. She also said she was using a "hortatory subjunctive" when she made those comments and that she was in the area of conjecture and supposition.

Doan, who has an English degree from Vassar College (with honors) and a masters in Renaissance literature from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, "Actually, you may notice -- I noticed as I went through the transcript that I have probably some problems sometimes with tense, as well as with personal pronouns. You have to look at what came before. And yes, we were talking about what goes on in a process and how does a performance review process happen."

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., responded later in the hearing that there are only three tenses (past, present and future). Doan responded that wasn't true. There are in fact other tenses to consider such as present perfective, present progressive and past progressive and in this particular case, the hortatory subjunctive.

The chairman of the panel, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., responded by saying the following:

Waxman: You've already told us that that future tense sentence didn't mean it because you didn't know future tense or, you know, something about a hortatory something or other. God, I feel like Tony Soprano.

The point is, you neither know or you don't know, about the authority you have. And it looked like, according to a strict reading of those words, that you, in the future, will make your -- use your authority to make sure they don't get the reward, they don't get the bonuses, they don't get whatever benefits they might otherwise get.

Doan: That's incorrect.

Waxman: OK, those words don't mean what they said.

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., whose mother is a Latin teacher, disagreed. He said that her statements about employees not getting promoted were made in the basic "future" tense.

Sarbanes said that the best example of the use of a hortatory subjunctive was when she allegedly said, "How can we help our candidates?" at the conclusion of a presentation given by a deputy of Karl Rove. Doan promptly disagreed.

"The hortatory subjunctive is used when you are exhorting people to do something, which is exactly what that statement was. That was an exhortation in the subjunctive tense," Sarbanes said.