Electoral College worked – and democrats must accept it

It is worth recalling that the last time the Northern Ireland Assembly voted on same-sex marriage, a majority backed it.

However, due to our complex history, the Assembly has a mechanism called a “Petition of Concern” which, if used, effectively means change can only happen if a majority of both main traditions back it. The Petition was used and, since the proposal lacked a Unionist majority, it failed.

Liberals were incandescent.

At around the same time, however, the Welfare Reform Bill was blocked using the same mechanism, this time by Nationalists.

When I put it to the incandescent Liberals that this constituted the same problem of democracy denied, it was peculiar how many suddenly changed their view. In other words, if a Petition was used to block something they didn’t like, it was fine; it was only wrong to use it to block something they liked.

But that isn’t democracy. Making your support for democracy conditional on most things going your way means you lose the right to call yourself a democrat. You support democracy, or you do not.

(The Petition system is there for very good reason, as anyone with an understanding of this part of the world will know. I do happen to believe it is now being used for purposes beyond those originally intended and thus needs reformed, but that is for another post!)

A month ago, a democratic election took place in the United States. As the name suggests, this is not a single entity but a union of States, who collectively elect their President via an Electoral College.

In that Electoral College, quite deliberately, smaller states are slightly overrepresented – just as smaller regions are overrepresented in the Spanish Cortes, smaller States are overrepresented in the German Federal Council (upper house), and Scotland and Wales were overrepresented in the UK Parliament prior to legislative devolution. It is therefore quite normal, indeed expected, for diverse countries to overrepresent smaller areas to avoid larger populations having all the say over the direction of the country.

In last month’s United States Presidential Election, my much preferred candidate Hillary Clinton received 2.5 million more votes than any other candidate.

However, there was a problem. She in fact was a whopping 4 million clear of her nearest rival in the State of California alone. This means in the remaining 49 States plus the District of Columbia, her nearest rival Donald Trump actually received nearly 1.5 million more votes than she did. These were received in smaller States which are proportionately overrepresented in the Electoral College, and therefore led to his receiving the comfortable majority of delegates to it.

In other words, unfortunately, the deliberate (and quite normal) overrepresentation of smaller areas to avoid the tyranny of the most populated ones (like California) led to an outcome I intensely dislike.

But that outcome was perfectly democratic, part of a system whose very design is to ensure the voices of those in sparsely populated states many people could not even place on a map definitely get heard. The system, in fact, worked perfectly.

As someone seriously concerned about the winning candidate, I don’t have to like the outcome. But as a democrat, I have to accept it. Otherwise I lose the right to call myself one.

Language links at Christmas

It is the first Friday of December, which means the first language post of the Christmas season, and what better way to start moving through the advent calendar than this superb version of “God Bless Us Everyone“, popularised by a “Christmas Carol” (the 2009 Carrey version)?

I have written many times before that the best way to learn languages is through music. The linked version is a particularly good example because, of course, those of us who have seen the animated film (probably several times each Christmas if my household is remotely typical) will be familiar with the song and the lyrics. Putting those lyrics into another language, ideally the original, means that we have a head start because we know roughly what they say already (although the demands of rhyme and meter do not allow for word-for-word translations, so there is still some challenge).

So it is with the magic of “Silent Night” (original German “Stille Nacht“), “O Holy Night” (original French “Cantique de Noël“) or even “Feliz Navidad“. Learning the linked original gives us a chance of understanding, while also picking up the rhythms of the language as we go along – without, really, much effort.

The other main trick to language learning, of course, is to recognise the links between languages. In the linked version of Bocelli’s performance, the lyrics are provided subtitled in both Italian and Portuguese. Both of these languages are derived from Latin and, although both are closer to Spanish than to each other, it is not difficult to see how closely linked they remain.

It is not just the links between them we pick up in this way, but also the distinct flavour of each language. Why not look at some examples?

  • Italian notte “night”, Portuguese noite (Spanish noche) derive from the Latin nox-noctem (generally nouns in modern languages of Latin origin derive from the object form, not the subject – noctem in this case) but none retains the awkward ‘c’ before ‘t’, merging it in slightly different ways (and even the Classical Romans did not pronounce the final ‘m’ except in very careful speech, so it is long lost in all derived languages);
  • that is just one of the majority of the words in the lyrics which are obviously cognate in both languages (a few are identical, e.g. sempre “always”; some are distinguished only by orthography, e.g. Italian che “that, which” versus Portuguese/Spanish que, armonia “harmony” versus harmonia, or iniziare “to beginversus iniciar; some are only a matter of an additional syllable or minor change, e.g. Italian qui “here” versus Portuguese/Spanish aquí; others still have markedly different spellings marking only minor differences in pronunciation, e.g. Italian Dio “God” is apparent in the written Spanish Dios but slightly less so in written Portuguese Deus);
  • Italian retains ogni “all, each” from Latin omnes “all”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) uses cada from later Latin cata “by”; all three also have a word for “all” derived from Latin totus (tutto, tudo/todo and todo respectively; cf. English “total”);
  • Italian cuore “heart” derives directly from Latin cor, whereas Portuguese coração (and Spanish corazón) derive from the later expanded Latin version coratio (also the derivation of “courage”);
  • Italian esultare “to rejoice” in this case shows Italian modifying and awkward combination (note also the coffee is “espresso” not *”expresso”!) where Portuguese (and Spanish) retain the original exultar;
  • Italian (also Spanish) libero “free” has become livre in Portuguese; this is a fairly standard switch (cf. Italian possibile, Spanish possible but Portuguese possível);
  • Italian male “evil” (as well as Natale “Christmas” with which it rhymes) shows the straightforward Italian preference (near requirement) for words to end in vowels (which makes it such a fantastic language for music), where Portuguese and Spanish are quite happy with mal – we see this again with Signore “Lord” versus Senhor (Spanish señor) in the next line and with grammatical endings such as amare “to love” versus amar (also apparent in the noun amore “love” versus amor);
  • Italian guidare “to guide” is again more conservative, identical to the Latin, where Portuguese (and Spanish) have both removed the medial ‘d’ to become guiar – this loss is more common in Portuguese than in Spanish, and occurs again later in the lyrics where Italian padri, madri “fathers, mothers” becomes Portuguese pais, mães (but the ‘d’ is maintained in Spanish padres, madres).
  • Italian ascoltare “to listen” is similar to Spanish escoltar but Portuguese prefers ouvir (more typically translated as “to hear”) in this case;
  • Italian aiutare “to help” shows the standard voicing of medial ‘t’ to medial ‘d’ versus Portuguese ajudar (Spanish ayudar) – shown immediately again in lodato “praised” versus louvado;
  • Italian miracolo “miracle” also shows a standard distinction from ‘r’ to ‘l’ and again voicing from ‘c’ to ‘g’, thus Portuguese milagre (Spanish milagro).
  • The Italian object pronoun ci is a development of Latin hic “this/here” and is thus markedly different from all other Latin-derived languages including Portuguese (and Spanish) with nos “us.
  • Italian preghiere derives directly from Latin  precor “pray”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) have rezar from Latin recitare “recite”;
  • The ending on the Italian carità “charity” from Latin caritas-caritatem becomes by standard derivation (noting again the above devoicing from ‘t’ to ‘d’) caridade in Portuguese (caridad in Spanish) – this also applies in the very first line to Italian felicità “happiness” from Latin felicitas (versus Portuguese felicidade and Spanish felicidad);
  • Italian infondere “to instill” is from Latin infundere but the chosen Portuguese translation incutir derives from incutio (which is perhaps closer to “inspire” in a general sense);
  • Italian sono, in this case “(they) are”, shows how unstable the verb “to be” is – though it is not apparent, it does derive from the same origin ultimately as Portuguese estão (Spanish would have son like Italian here, but also has estan like Portuguese in some contexts);
  • Italian has cercare “to search” and (ri)trovare “find (again), retrieve” distinctly from Portuguese (and Spanish) buscar and (r)encontrar, but ultimately three are derived from Latin (circare “to look around”; tropus a way of singing; incontrare “to encounter, meet”) and one (buscar) is of unknown origin – the choice between them is one of usage through the ages;
  • Italian quello “that” does have a Portuguese cognate aquele, as the Portuguese este “this” does have an Italian cognate questo (it just so happens that the different one was chosen in the translation to reflect modern usage);
  • Italian vincere “to win” by regular differentiation has become Portuguese (and Spanish) vencer – above, this also applied to Signore versus Senhor, and it even applies to distinctions such as di “of, from” versus de;
  • Italian benedicere “bless” derives more directly from bene “well” plus dicere “say” (which are both still the contemporary forms) than the Portuguese abençoar which derives from older ben plus diçoar (modern bem and dizer); and
  • we also see throughout that Italian has maintained the formation of the plural by changing vowel (typically -o to –i, –a to –e or -e to -i) whereas Spanish and Portuguese typically add -(e)s.

So what have we learned just from this short section?

  • as with any pairs of Latin-derived languages, a lot of words (e.g. sempre or armonia/harmonia) are absolutely identical or at least essentially the same (there are many more, e.g. casa “house”, costa “coast” or verde “green”);
  • voiceless consonants before vowels are often voiced in Portuguese (e.g. aiutare/ajudar), so we may reasonably guess that Italian sete “thirst” will be Portuguese sede or fuoco “fire” will be fogo;
  • voiced consonants between vowels can be lost completely in Portuguese (as in fact can others such as ‘l’; Italian salute “health” versus Portuguese saude);
  • Italian retains higher vowels (e.g. vincere versus vencer; also in “in” versus em, diciembre “December” versus dezembro);
  • in some cases Italian retains an older syllable (e.g. settimana “week” versus Portuguese/Spanish semana) or even just a more directly Latinate word (e.g. domandare “to ask” versus Portuguese perguntar);
  • endings can be predictable (just as Italian felicità “happiness” is Portuguese felicidade, so qualità “quality” is qualidade; likewise possibile “possible” versus possível and mobile “mobile” versus móvel; and there are others – if attenzione “attention” is atenção, we may guess that nazione “nation” is nação); and
  • the basic structure in terms of verb conjugations, positioning of pronouns, basic word order and so on is similar in each language, with notable exceptions (such as plural formation).

Remember, we got all this ultimately from the lyrics of one short, very memorable song!!

This is the fun and effective way to learn languages – through obvious linkages based on memorable music.

Now, where is that Advent Calendar…?




No, we do not “give Trump a chance”

The reaction of the UK and Irish Governments to the election of Donald Trump as US President has appalled me.

It is jumping on a bandwagon which has already become too mainstream – that we should “give Trump a chance”.


Mr Trump had his chance. During the primaries and then the general election campaign, he abused that chance.

Overtly mocking a disabled reporter should have been the end of it for a start.

Essentially suggesting sexual abuse of women was tolerable should certainly have been the end of it.

Suggesting that an entire nation was made up of “rapists” was utterly unacceptable.

And now the demonstration of all this is upon us – a President Elect who hides from scrutiny behind a social media account, thinks crucial government appointments are a game show, and recruits almost exclusively white men alongside a Vice President who thinks homosexuals can be cured.

So to anyone who thinks we should “give him a chance”, I say what the hell is wrong with you?

The United States has elected to its highest office a dangerous narcissist who stands opposed to the basics of open, civilised democracy.

Give him a chance?!! We must oppose him proactively and vehemently at every turn – just like the majority of Americans did earlier this month.


Media misrepresenting Finance Minister’s solo run

The media and various lobbyists were very excited last week over the Finance Minister’s plans to allocate £22 million to social enterprise and similar good causes. This gained him quite a lot of coverage.

The obvious problem is: he doesn’t have the money.

The money is dependent on a reform of rating he announced in the Assembly.

The obvious problem is: the Executive hasn’t agreed to that reform.

So, whether it should or shouldn’t, it can’t and won’t happen.

Indeed, he had not even spoken to his DUP partners about it before he announced it. Given that proposals such as removing the rates cap are directly contrary to established DUP policy, and he did not even give them the courtesy of trying to develop a compromise before making the announcement, there is zero chance of it happening.

So a Sinn Féin Minister has made an apparent pledge of £22 million he cannot hope to deliver on.

This is the same Sinn Féin Minister who made a pledge to introduce same-sex marriage legislation, urged those pursing it through a private member’s bill to let him do so, and then had to withdraw his proposal because it lacked Executive agreement – exactly because, again, it ran directly contrary to his partner party’s policy.

It should by now be apparent that delivery is not Sinn Féin’s strong suit. We have a Health Minister who has set out “the only road map” to Health Reform but is not even consulting on that road map (far less developing a practical action plan to deliver it); and an Infrastructure Minister overseeing delay after delay on his party’s long proposed A5 and A6 upgrade projects (evidently he and his colleagues had never thought to check the processes had been carried out correctly even though they have been in the Executive for the full nine years since the first public inquiry). Meanwhile the DUP has been able to keep down household taxes, complete two major road projects in the east (one of which, the A8, really should have been well down the list), and even now put in a Unionist Justice Minister to keep half-used courthouses open.

The media and lobbyists should know better, therefore, than to report Sinn Féin ministerial announcements as if there is even the remotest hope of them happening without prior Executive backing.

The real story here is the Finance Minister is all talk. He is about to get his plans blocked again – for the second major time in just six months including summer recess, that is some going…

How to leave EU – a response, at last!

I asked, way back on 30 August, for thoughts from those who voted Leave about how the UK should actually go about leaving the EU.

Until 23 November, I had received no response. Then I found myself in correspondence with a UKIP MEP and asked if he would put forward his proposal on this blog.

Now, admittedly, his initial response was in fact primarily about why we should leave rather than how (it is peculiar how many people who say the referendum is final then insist on refighting it), although for the record he did mention we did not need Trade Deals.

However, after a second email reminding him of the challenge he did kindly respond – and I am content to publish that response in full here, as promised.

I have written a book entitled __ ____ __ _______, that explains in detail how we can leave the EU.  You can obtain a copy from _________ _____ ___ if you would like to read it.

Now, clearly, I have had to abridge that a bit because the thing is, by “obtain”, he actually meant “purchase”.

The requirement to actually pay money to read his views about how to go about leaving the EU is an interesting example of his commitment to his cause, and perhaps explains his party leadership’s obsession with another senior businessman-politician across the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, that is literally the most detailed response I have had for three months, so we should be thankful for that.

Can anyone do better?

No reason to believe child abuse is solely thing of past

We heard over the past week of widespread child abuse in football a generation ago. It is utterly horrific.

Yet I am concerned we are treating this still merely as a series of isolated incidents which occurred decades ago. We may note that they affect people who are still living, but our underlying safety mechanism kicks in and says “Different area, different era”.

I hope someone reading can demonstrate what I am about to write is wrong.

Firstly, we are now at the stage where this is not a series of isolated incidents, but rather the norm. Huge numbers of children were abused as a matter of course to the extent they normalised it as part of their upbringing – by TV figures, sports coaches, priests, family members and others. Nor was this confined to the UK and Ireland – for example, a well known TV commentator in Australia was found guilty of child abuse in the 1970s only last week.

Secondly, therefore, the notion of child abusers as “one in a million” weirdos is dangerously wrong. In fact, vast numbers (i.e. a significant percentage) of men are capable of committing child abuse, given the chance. The whole notion to me is so utterly repellent that I cannot begin to comprehend this, but the common theme seems to be a kind of warped and sick power play. The more and more the abuser gets away with it, the more and more he does it. He enjoys the fact he has power over victims to stop them reporting it.

Thirdly, therefore, we know this remains vastly understated. The horrendous reality is that this means it is vastly understated even right now. It is, after all, only decades on that this is being reported. Though we like to kid ourselves otherwise, there is no reason to believe that similar revelations about now will not take place decades from now. Remember, the perpetrators are generally well thought of “pillars of the community” involved in volunteering and charity work.

Finally, I fear therefore that we haven’t even begun to tackle this effectively. It is one thing to introduce “child protection policies” and such like, but this gets to only the tip of the iceberg. It seems to me there is a much deeper and widespread social and perhaps psychological problem here with the terrifying number of men who continue to view other human beings as objects for their own gratification. We surely have to ask some basic questions, like why in a civilised society so many men would even give the slightest thought to carrying out such ghastly acts?

The whole issue is so repulsive to the rest of us that the easiest thing, particularly for people like me who have no expertise whatsoever in the area, is not to think about it. But it is now evident that the scale of the problem is so horrifyingly vast, that we do need to think about it for the sake of genuinely vulnerable human beings whose lives are being ruined.

I hope someone reading this can at least allay some of my worst fears about the scale of this horror.

We were never all that keen on the “truth”

Northern Ireland is a complete joke of a place. It has the lowest wages in the UK, the most poverty and the worst health; there’s a road fatality every day and a murder every week; its education system is a farce. Its public transport is laughable and, uniquely in the British Isles, it can’t even get a train connection to the airport. No wonder far more people leave the place than come to it!

Show that sentence to most people in Northern Ireland, and perhaps beyond, and few would quibble with it. Most indeed would enthusiastically agree, perhaps even adding a few more pointers to just how useless we all are.

Yet every statement above is complete and utter nonsense.

Northern Ireland’s wages are indeed below the London-skewed UK mean but now approaching the median among UK regions, its poverty rates are if anything lower, and life expectancy is also about the UK/EU average; on average there is a road fatality every five days and a murder once a month; Boston College recognises Northern Ireland’s basic education as the best in Europe and the best in the English-speaking world. Northern Ireland’s trains are the most punctual in the UK and, post-bus lanes, more people now enter Belfast City Centre than before; and there is a train connection to one airport with a platform accessible on foot within 20 minutes of leaving the plane (highly unusually for a city of Belfast’s size which, typically in the UK, wouldn’t have one, as Dublin hasn’t). Perhaps as a result, in fact five more people come to Northern Ireland to live every day than leave it.

Take a screenshot of the above paragraph and check how often things are said – from private conversation to media debates – which run contrary to it and are, therefore, just plain wrong.

We can see that this “post-truth” era is nothing new. It is perhaps more visible than it was – in fact, in the past, it would have been much harder to stick a blog post on the web for the world to see to tackle the myths we all take to be true.

What is interesting, however, is that even people reading this who may have been surprised by the “correction paragraph” above will still find themselves repeating the myths. One thing about human beings is that once they understand something to be the case, they find it extremely difficult to remove that knowledge from the brain and replace it with the correction. This basic psychological fact can of course be abused by unscrupulous individuals, who will happily report rumours and news, have it placed well up the Google charts, and then turn them into apparent “facts”.

As an acquaintance pointed out, this merely reflects a norm. It is standard marketing and sales technique to appeal to emotion first, and only then provide some back-up information. Successful political movements will do the same thing – which is why ability to communicate (emotive) values is far more important electorally than the development of rational and coherent policy positions.

We were never all that keen on “truth”. If you want something rational which operates solely on the basis of facts presented, it is called a computer. We are human beings, and we are not “post-truth” because we were never “pre-truth”!

It’s the divergent traffic flows, stupid

The Infrastructure Minister was on BBC Good Morning Ulster last week and, as ever, said some things which were accurate and others which were more dubious.

The Minister attained his mandate on a party pledge to prioritise infrastructure upgrades in the West (notably the A5 Derry-Strabane and Omagh-Ballygawley; and the A6 Derry-Dungiven and Castledawson-Randalstown). He has a case when he suggests that the media focus on the East (and the M2/M3/A12 York Street Interchange) because most of them live there and it is easier to do stories there.

However, his case is not bullet proof. In fact, most people in general live in the East, and Belfast commuters are seeing markedly high increases in commuting times. Nearly 120,000 vehicles pass through the York Street Interchange every day, whereas on most of the two stretches of A5 he is prioritising ahead of it barely 20,000 do. The East gets the bulk of infrastructure upgrade funding for the simple reason that it provides markedly better (and clearer) value for money.

But then, that case is not bullet proof either, because one of the reasons people live in the East is, directly or indirectly, that the infrastructure is better. Perhaps, if the A5 were upgraded, considerably more than 20,000 vehicles a day would use it, encouraging trade and leisure opportunities along its length?

Although then, are we not supposed to be discouraging vehicular traffic for environmental reasons?

As a matter of fact, detailed studies go into the social and economic benefit of each upgrade. In order, the greatest benefit is in fact offered by the A6 Castledawson-Randalstown upgrade, just ahead of the York Street Interchange, followed by the A5 upgrade taken as whole (although the potential complication there is that literally most of the benefit applies to the Republic) and then, some way behind, the A6 Derry-Dungiven.

Such studies are not perfect of course; there is a strong case that they overstate the economic case and existing traffic levels and do not place sufficient value on alternatives.

In the case of the York Street Interchange (I say reluctantly as it would have most benefit to me personally), it is clear alternatives should be considered whether it proceeds or not. There are several issues here, emphasised not least by last Tuesday’s chaos:

  • if more people used public transport, particularly into and out of the City Centre, fewer vehicles would use the Interchange anyway;
  • if journey times were more staggered, fewer vehicles would assemble at the lights around York Street at the same time (even if the total daily traffic flow remained the same); and
  • if the entry points were tolled, people would have incentives to investigate alternative means of transport or times of travel.

Ultimately this means speedy advancement of the Belfast Rapid Transit system and the purchase of new stock – the good news is both of these should be complete by end decade. It may also be helpful to restrict smart passes (free travel for over-60s) to non-peak hours, to stagger usage times, although the benefit here may be marginal.

However, it also means consideration of something else, a logical progression of what the Minister said but would probably never specify: there are too many free parking spaces for government employees in the City Centre. This has come to be seen as a standard perk, but in fact it should be brought to an end. It is this which adds literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vehicles to the traffic flow at York Street Interchange – and, what is more, it adds them all at the same time during rush hour! It is exactly this which earns Belfast the title of “most congested city in the UK” – it is not, in fact, congested as such but it does have one of the biggest discrepancies between volume of traffic at peak hours and volume of traffic otherwise. The principle is simple – if you want to park in the City Centre, you should pay for the privilege regardless of who you are.

There is also a growing move globally towards tolling motorways, a key part of the strategy which gave the Republic of Ireland the finest motorway/expressway network in Europe. Northern Ireland would have the added advantage of being able to implement this entirely electronically.

Yet, while all of this would help, none of it is quite the issue. Three locations have not yet been mentioned: the A2 Dee Street lights (exiting Belfast to the east); the M1/A1 Sprucefield Junction (exiting Belfast to the southwest); and the M2/A8 Sandyknowes Junction (exiting Belfast to the north). Unless these are sorted, the full benefit of an upgraded York Street Interchange will not be apparent.

The reason is divergent traffic flows. The ideal is to have traffic exiting the city moving on a freeflow basis at least until there is a major divergence. The most important example of this is the A2 east from Belfast, where the major divergence is at Knocknagoney but there are two sets of lights stopping mainline traffic in advance. The absolute necessity is to remove these lights (at Dee Street and the City Airport, where an alternative westbound access would be necessary); the absolute ideal would be to make Knocknagoney freeflow too, similarly to Tillysburn just east of it.

Likewise, heading southwest, the proposed M1/A1 flyover (thus removal of all roundabouts on the Belfast-Dublin mainline) is high priority, supporting divergent traffic flow in a way which would see traffic even as far back as the Westlink through Belfast travelling more freely in rush hour. Heading north, fixing Sandyknowes is admittedly an altogether more complex task, requiring a second junction further north (actually at about where the new Ballycraigy services are) to take Mallusk-bound traffic instead – but again, fixing this would have benefits all the way back to the M2/M5 Shore Motorway.

Fixing junctions in such a way does no the require hectares of new land to be covered in concrete and it would have very significant beneficial effects to Greater Belfast traffic. Tying it to encouragement of the use of public transport – by both carrot and stick – and marked benefits would be apparent for all. Toll some of it, of course, and money would become available for upgrades in the West.

That is why it is all about divergent traffic flows!

Chancellor in fantasy land re EU-27 “economic interest”

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond thinks the rest of the EU will not force the UK out of the European Free Trade Area because it is “not in their economic interest to do so”.


Because here is the thing: as Mr Hammond well knows, leaving the EU in the first place is not in the UK’s “economic interest”.

Yet he is in a government proceeding to do so because it is being held hostage by British-nationalist populists.

Well you know what? The next French President will be held hostage by French-nationalist populists (if not one herself); the next Dutch government will be held hostage by Dutch-nationalist populists; the current Danish government already is held hostage by Danish-nationalist populists; the next Austrian President will be an Austrian-nationalist populist; the Hungarian government is a Hungarian-populist one; Bulgaria just elected a Russian-leaning President; and Italy is, well, Italy (cf. this coming Sunday).

Leaving the EU is not in the UK’s economic interest but it is in its government’s political interest (it judges, anyway).

Well you know what? Forcing the UK out of the Free Trade Area may or may not be in France’s, or the Netherlands’, or Denmark’s, or Austria’s, or Hungary’s, or Italy’s, or Bulgaria’s economic interests, but it definitely will be in their governments’ political interests.

See? Leaving the EU means it is 27 against 1.

Well you know what? That means the 27 will get what they want – politically.

Can you learn Spanish without the subjunctive?

There was an interesting exchange on Twitter recently on the topic of the subjunctive.

That seems an unlikely opening sentence to any blog post, so I should be specific: it was about the case that to learn a language, at least initially, you do not need to learn all the detailed aspects of its grammar and general form. The example given was that it is possible (allegedly) to get a long way in Spanish without needing the subjunctive.

This argument had its proponent and its opponent. I do not fall into either category completely, but I veer more towards the opponent in this case.


The subjunctive is a verbal “mood”, rarely used in English (usually to mark obligation or recommendation: “It is essential that you be there“) but very common in Spanish. Furthermore, in Spanish its form is more likely to vary (in English, the subjunctive form is as often as not the same as the “normal” indicative: “It is essential that you come“).


Spanish has maintained the subjunctive in wide use, even in the colloquial spoken language. It is obligatory in many instances (vienes “you come”; es muy importante que vengas “it is very important that you come”); and it is vital to meaning in others (aunque vienes “even though you are coming”; aunque vengas “even if you come”).

Basic Learning

The essential argument that it is not necessary to know every aspect of a language’s structure at the outset is undoubtedly true. After all, when we teach any language, we tend to start with the “normal” indicative present tense and then introduce other tenses and forms as we go along.

When I teach Spanish to community groups, I often avoid teaching verb forms at all initially. Instead of learning puedo “I can”, puedes “you can”, podemos “we can” and so on, it is possible for example to learn “es posible por mí… por ti… por nosotros” and then also “es necesario…”, “es bueno…” and so on for basic phrases (thus we can already express possibility, necessity and desirability without any verb forms).

Therefore, I do see the argument that the subjunctive is not necessary at, or even particularly near, the outset.


However, it is a simple reality of the structure of the Spanish language that the subjunctive is widely used (and, as noted above, often decisive as to meaning).

Therefore, it is not quite accurate, in my view, to say it can be delayed indefinitely or even for any real length of time.

Spanish also, for example, has three past tense forms [strictly two, plus a present form which indicates past]. I would contend that in fact it is more important to know the present subjunctive than to know the preterite (one of those past tense forms), as it is more likely to arise sooner and in a way which may be decisive as to meaning. Most native speakers will understand a foreigner mixing past tense forms, but may be thrown by the use or non-use of the subjunctive.


Therefore, reluctantly, I conclude the subjunctive (at least in the present form) is necessary fairly early. It simply cannot be avoided for too long without sounding ludicrously stilted or just plain wrong.

I would suggest the same applies to Italian and Portuguese (perhaps not so much to spoken French).