Subjunctivitis: Interlude (Subjunctive of Nagging)

“You were to finish this write-up last night – in fact, you should have finished it!”  An expression of frustrated will, nagging in Latin is a borderline case between will and wish.  In his New Latin Syntax, E. C. Woodcock discusses the use of imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive in a jussive sense (sections 110-111, 116), painstakingly distinguishing them from expressions of unfulfillable/unfulfilled wish.  He doesn’t use the term ‘nagging,’ of course – but I think it is the psychology of nagging that opens the spaces for grammatical ambivalence.  Here are two of Woodcock’s examples.

A nagging scene in Plautus (Rud. 841):

Quin occidisti extemplo? — Gladius non erat. — Caperes aut fustem aut lapidem. (Why didn’t you slaughter him on the spot??  — There was no sword… — You were to grab a club or a stone!

Cicero nags at Verres (Verr. 3.195):

Quid facere debuisti?  Pecuniam rettulisses, frumentum ne emisses.  (What ought you to have done?  You should have returned the money, you should not have bought the corn!”

Nagging is generally a waste of time – one can’t reverse what has or has not been done.  But it’s an effective roiling tool and a venting device.  Here is a modern article on nagging:

Nagging is a term used almost exclusively by men to describe women. […] Men are not naggers. They’re assertive, they’re leaders, and invariably they’re passing on their wisdom – and gently reminding [others]of the path to take if they happen to forget along the way. Sure, they criticize, find fault, moan and complain, but it’s always for the [other person’s] benefit. The repetition of their advice, like “Read the map before you set off! How many times must I tell you?” and “Can’t you make more of an effort with how you look when my friends come round?” shows admirable persistence and, above all, shows that they care.


2 thoughts on “Subjunctivitis: Interlude (Subjunctive of Nagging)

  1. Ha, I wrote my dissertation on Plautus’s “shrews”, arguing in part that male scholars had done much to shape our interpretation of the character. And yes, I concluded that the wives’ nagging was an effective means of shaming ridiculous husbands about their inappropriate behavior, and that it was pretty damned funny too.

    1. Ah, the grammar of nagging:) There’s much of it right now on the Silver and Black Pride blog. “Cable shoulda benched Campbell and put Grad in.” Fierce nagging, fierce anti-nagging, all in the hope of correcting the team’s weaknesses. The anti-naggers nag because the nagging about the Raiders offensive line seems to cross the line between will and unfulfilled wish.

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