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We were watching Apocalypto on TV last night when S called. Did I tell you S is a brilliant writer of all things automotive? So he was writing a piece for some periodical and wanted to know if a sentence should read thus:

…lest he forgets he went bust designing the types of car for which he is still rightly famous…

D and I both said no, and then I just had to tell him why it is a no.

See, “lest” means “for fear that” and is largely formal, and rather obsolete too I think. It’s a conjunction, and it has to be followed by something that you think should be avoided.

Now the clause following the word “lest” is always in a subjunctive mood. What is a subjunctive mood? As i have said once in the past:

The Subjunctive is a verb mood used in subordinate clauses to express various states of non-reality, such as wish, emotion, possibility, necessity, judgment, opinion, or action that has not yet occurred. The structure of Subjunctives is that for all verbs except in the past tense of “be”, the subjunctive is the same as the bare infinitive and it does not change according to person (I, you, he, etc).

Like I said a while back, lest is used to mean “for fear of”. You don’t know what is going to happen if a certain thing is done or not done, and you are worried of that particular outcome. For example, if I told you that you should not spread rumours about a possible petrol price hike because others might get paranoid, I am essentially telling you that I am worried that your discussing it might cause paranoia. There is an off chance also that there might be no paranoia. We don’t know that. We assume the worse and think that there might be paranoia. In essence, I tell you to not spread the rumour for fear of that paranoia, which may or may not be, but I am assuming, will be.

That is the reason for the subjunctive usage – you are expressing a state of possibility when you are fearing a certain outcome. So, to frame a sentence with this, we’d say:

I told you to not spread rumours lest it should cause paranoia.

Here, “should” adds the subjunctive to the sentence. There is a possibility that the rumour might cause paranoia, and therefore, the use of “should” with an infinitive (cause).

So why did we think the original sentence was wrong? The present tense of the subjunctive mood has a future signification, and therefore the termination of the second and third person singular are necessary when these two circumstances are present:

1. When the subject is of a dubious and contingent nature
2. When the verb has a reference to a future time.

We don’t know if he will forget, and he has obviously not forgotten it yet. Therefore, the sentence should read:

“…lest he forget he went bust designing the types of car for which he is still rightly famous…”