Brian Quinn

Professor Sebastian Bryson-Bragg Explains the Third Mood

Following Penny Post’s successful series of articles on artistic subjects from Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist (such as here and here), we are delighted that Sir Courtney was able to introduce us at a recent Masonic initiation dinner in Inverness to a friend of his, Sebastian Bryson-Bragg, Professor of Neological Linguistics at the University of Stoke Poges. Few of our readers will be unfamiliar with Professor Bryson-Bragg’s seminal three-volume history of the indefinite article, An A, nor of his theory that modern English owes more to the native American Chipuiddickane dialect than to Anglo-Saxon, Latin or Norman French.

In what we intend to be a series of hard-hitting pieces on semantic matters, Professor Bryson-Bragg here explains what he terms ‘The Third Mood’ with particular reference to the verb ‘to be clear’.


Hi! Call me Prof BB, which is what my students do (or some of them!) I like to think I’m a pretty approachable kind of guy and that I tell things how they are with a smile on my face – which has got to be a good thing! Someone told me that I was the Tony Blair of neological linguistics and you don’t get any higher praise than that in my book (and I’ve written a few)!

You’ve probably noticed that I like to use exclamation marks (!) Not quite the image of a stuffy professor of words! Hey, that’s just showing how enthusiastic I am! I’m so happy that God has given me this gift of communication. If that needs extra punctuation now and then to really sock it home, so be it! If you want to learn you’ve got to make it fun πŸ™‚

Right guys – let’s get seriouso. What’s this third mood, then? Nothing to do with tri-polar disorder! I’m talking verbs. We know about the active and the passive, don’t we? ‘I ate’ and ‘I have been eaten’? Well, there’s a third: the manipulative. This is a recent addition to grammar so don’t go looking for it in the books (except mine, natch)! It first appeared in the early 1980s and is generally found in only two areas of life: marketing and politics. Example time!

Imagine you’re reading an advertisement for, say, a financial product which starts with the sentence ‘You want the best for your family.’ If you were to pars this, you might say ‘easy – present indicative.’ You’d be wrong – wrong, wrong, wrong! In this context, it’s what we language boffs call the ‘continuous manipulative’. What’s that, Prof BB?

To explain, we need to wind back one moment, chaps and chapesses. Were you to have seen the sentence in isolation, your first guess would have been right. What makes it manipulative is what happens afterwards. What happens afterwards is usually a series of statements that, though individually dubious, become reasonable following acceptance of the first remark. We’d all agree with wanting what’s best for our family, wouldn’t we? Course we would! Once this has been established, it becomes progressively harder to disagree with what is said afterwards as long as everything appears to be connected to the first point – hence the ‘manipulative’. This illusion of agreement carries on for as long as you carry on reading – hence the ‘continuous’. Put the two words together and what’ve you got, kids? That’s right – ‘continuous manipulative’.

The easiest way to get people to see this connection is to start as many of the subsequent sentences with a word or phrase like ‘so’, ‘therefore’, ‘obviously’ or ‘in order that’. Time for another example!

‘You want the best for your family. Therefore you will want to become as rich as possible. In order for this to happen, you should seriously consider robbing a bank.’

See what I mean? As long as you start with something that no one will disagree with, the whole proposition appears eminently reasonable. A phrase such as ‘you should seriously consider’ adds some volts to the continuous manipulativeness of the initial verb: it challenges the reader seriously to consider something and then, just at the point when his or her brain has started trying to do so, pops up with the answer – rob a bank! With the right typeface and a compelling illustration at the top, by the end of the first paragraph a lot of readers will think that the whole thing had been their own idea. Job done!

So much for marketing. Now we turn to politics, where the use of the third mood is even more insidious. I’d like at this point to ask our Prime Minister to step forward. Hi Theresa! She, more than anyone else I’m aware of, is a compulsive user of the classic continuous-manipulative verb ‘to be clear.’

Like falloir in French (sorry, Brexiteers!) ‘to be clear’ is a defective verb. Falloir only exists in the third person singular: ‘to be clear’, in the third mood, only exists in the first person singular and first person plural. Ding-dong! Example time again!

‘I want to be clear…’ (almost invariably used in answer to a question.) This conveys, in only five words, a whole raft of implications: (1) that the question that provoked it was muddled or obscure, even though the reality was that it was merely unwelcome; (2) that all previous attempts by the politician so far in the interview to be clear have been thwarted by the interviewer; (3) that the politician is trying to lay down the law to some rebellious faction in their party; (4) that something important is about to be said to which will bring all the confused wrangling we’ve been listening to so far into sharp focus. We all want things to be clear, yes? Clarity is good, right? Well, the implication is, here comes some clarity – so listen up!

If the politician adds ‘very’ or ‘quite’, as in ‘I want to be very clear…’ that conveys all the above meanings plus (5) hey journos – 140-character soundbite coming up!

As with the marketing example, once you accept the premise that the admirable goal of clarity is what’s being aimed at, more or less anything that’s said afterwards will be accepted (and, if ‘quite’ or ‘very’ is used, also written down and quoted in a headline).

That’s the singular form. The plural form, which we linguos call the ‘continuous inclusive manipulative’ (hea-vy term, sorry guys!) is, in the right hands, one of the most powerful weapons in a politician’s arsenal. Are you ready-steady-go?

‘Let us be quite clear…’ You see what I mean? Wow – packs a punch, doesn’t it? Nanny is no longer wagging her finger and sending you to bed without any jam tart and custard – she’s putting her arm around you and inviting you, in the midst of your distress and confusion, to share her world, in which everything is clear and simple and easy. You’re included! All you have to do is nod and agree to eat your sprouts! At this point you’re whimpering so loudly that you can’t even hear what she’s saying: but it doesn’t matter. Nanny’s in charge so everything’s going to be hunky dory.

So, there we have it – Prof BB’s lightning tour of one of the most unrecognised grammatical forms of our time – the third mood. There might even be fourth mood – hey, that’s an exciting thought, isn’t it? Sort of like a fourth dimension! Groovy! Who needs Brian Cox when you’ve got a neological linguist on your team?


Prof BB

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