The Grammarphobia Blog

Lest-wise

Q: I found this sentence in a book I’m reading: “Stop, lest someone hears you.” Shouldn’t this read “Stop, lest someone hear you,” which I believe is the subjunctive? Or would it be more correct to write “Stop, lest someone were to hear you”? However, this seems stilted for dialog,

A: The word “lest” is normally used with a verb that’s in the subjunctive mood or that’s accompanied by “should.”

As we’ve written before on our blog, the subjunctive is used for only three purposes in modern English:

(1) To express a wish: “I wish I were there.”

(2) To express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If I were a carpenter, I’d fix it myself.”

(3) To express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “I demand that I be released.”

But, as we pointed out, the subjunctive was once much more common than it is today.

Some archaic usages have survived in the case of certain words and phrases, like “God forbid,” “come what may,” “the powers that be,” and others.

One of these survivors is the continued use of “lest” with the subjunctive.

A few examples: “He was quiet, lest he wake the baby” … “I hurried, lest I be late” … “She’s always on time, lest she lose her job.”

Any of those could be written instead with “should,” as in “lest he should wake the baby.”

“Lest” is an interesting word etymologically, a living antique. Its meaning is “for fear that” or, roughly, “in order not that” such-and-such happen.

It developed from an Old English phrase first recorded around the year 1000: thy laes the (“whereby less that”).

During the Middle English period (about 1100-1500), the first part of the phrase was dropped, and it was written as les the (“less that”), then les te, then leste, and finally “lest,” though other spellings continued into later times.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “lest,” which is a conjunction, is used in two senses.

First, it’s “a negative particle of intention or purpose, introducing a clause expressive of something to be prevented or guarded against.”

Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1797, used the word in that sense: “Nobody scarcely will venture to buy or draw bills, lest they should be paid there in depreciated currency.”

And here’s an example of that sense of “lest” used with the subjunctive (without “should”), from Cornwall magazine (1855): “Look to the Purser well, lest he look to himself too well.”

Second, the OED says, the word is “used after verbs of fearing, or phrases indicating apprehension or danger, to introduce a clause expressing the event that is feared.”

The mountaineer Frederick Clissold used the word in that sense in The Ascent of Mont Blanc (1823): “I felt a strong inclination to sleep, and feared lest I should drop down.”

And here’s an example of that sense of “lest” used with the subjunctive (without “should”), from Ralph Austen’s Treatise of Fruit Trees (1653): “All the danger is least we take too much liberty herein.” (Here, “least” is a variant spelling of “lest.”)

As you can see, the sentence “Stop, lest someone hear you” could also be written as “Stop, lest someone should hear you.”

The other version you mention ( “Stop, lest someone were to hear you”) uses the subjunctive correctly but it’s needlessly wordy.

We’ll stop now, lest we be needlessly wordy too.

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