Subjunctive mood

In English, the subjunctive mood is used to explore conditional or imaginary situations. It can be tricky to use, which partially explains why many speakers and writers forgo it. But it’s quite useful (and aesthetically pleasing, at least to us), and careful users of English should do their part to preserve it.

Uses of the subjunctive mood

The subjunctive mood is used to explore conditions that are contrary to fact:

If I were President, I wouldn’t put up with it. [National Review]

It’s used to explore hypotheticals:

If I were to embroider a sampler, it would say, “Simple is truly best in Frytown.” [Z Wire]

It’s used to express wishes:

I wish I were there to have a drink with you and dish. [Ebar]

It’s used to express commands or demands:

She demanded that he leave the hospital premises … [Salem News]

It’s used to express suggestions:

I suggest that he implement a budget cut in March. [Daily Gleaner]

It’s used to make statements of necessity:

It’s essential that they be heard … [Alternet]

Subjunctive mood and verb tense

Since statements in the subjunctive mood exist outside time, tense applies differently. In the last four subjunctive mood examples above, the tenses of the indicative verbs (wish, demanded, suggest, is) could change, and the subjunctive verb indicating the imagined action (were, leave, implement, be) would not change—for example:

I wished I were there to have a drink with you and dish.

She will demand that he leave the hospital premises.

I suggested that he implement a budget cut in March.

It will be essential that they be heard.

With subjunctive if constructions, things get trickier. In these statements, there is no concrete action, so there is no real tense. However, we still categorize them in terms of when the imagined action would take place. For instance, the first of the above subjunctive mood examples is in the present subjunctive. The future subjunctive would look like this:

If I were to become President in 20 years, I wouldn’t put up with it.

Of course, this begins to stretch the subjunctive mood beyond necessity, which is why the future subjunctive is rarely used. In this case, it would be much easier to use the indicative mood:

If I become President in 20 years, I won’t put up with it.

In the past subjunctive mood, the verb tense of the imagined action does change—for example:

If I had been President, I wouldn’t have put up with it.

If you’re confused by the subjunctive mood, don’t worry too much. As with all grammar and usage matters, the rules for subjunctive mood are based on centuries of convention. There’s no deeper reason; it just is what it is. But the subjunctive mood is useful, and it would be a shame if it were to go away.

11 thoughts on “Subjunctive mood”

  1. Thank you for this article! I am always riding my kids to get this right, but they don’t often hear the subjunctive mood used correctly outside our home. Your article is a simple, short explanation that helps to back me up. It is good to know there are others who want to preserve good grammar. I just picked up a book that included an error in the use of the subjunctive mood in the first chapter and I’m hard pressed to continue reading it. The author, the editor, the proofreaders (Do they still have those in publishing? They must not!) all had to miss that mistake and it galls me.

  2. Well said, Lola (and dcuervo)! I regularly detect usage errors in magazine articles, ads an TV episode dialog, e.g., neglecting the subjunctive mood, and use of “hung” in place of “hanged” in speaking of an execution. Reporting that a bad-guy was “hung by the neck until dead” would only be correct if the individual were a famous painting or piece of equipment. Another example is ignorance of singular and plural forms…as in “We discovered a new bacterium” (Nope, though you may have discovered a new strain of bacteria!), and use of “phenomena” in place of “phenomenon.” I have also found it common to mispronounce the word “fungi” (“soft” a “j”), by folks who really should know better.

    Another common error is to ignore the dictates of nominative and accusative case of pronouns. This can be truly laughable, particularly when speakers overcompensate and say something like “The principal will be taking you and I to the baseball game.” Nope, I don’t think so. He’ll probably be taking “you and me” to the game. I will admit that some cases can be tricky. An hour ago, on a local noncommercial radio program, the host spoke of handling problems by people “like you and I.” As I understand it, “like” is a preposition (“by” is also a preposition), requiring the pronouns to reflect the accusative form, so the comment should have been “These problems might have been handled by people like you and me.”

    Trickier for many is the use of “as.” “As” is actually a conjunction (a “linking word”), not a preposition. In STNG, Cpt. Picard might say something like, “Lt. Ward, I suggest you—in this situation—act as I.” In this example, the use of “as” dictates the pronoun remain in nominative case. Also, there is an implied understanding of the missing word “would.”

    • I’m fairly certain that in your example for the word “like” it is being used as a conjunction, so the example you gave for “as” would apply. That is, your sentence is correct because the word “people” is objective, but if “people” were subjective, then you would need to use the subjective form of “I.” So it is, “These problems might have been handled by people like you and me,” just as you said. However, it would be, “People like you and I might have handled these problems,” rather than, “People like you and me might have handled these problems.”

      Of course “like” can also be a preposition, so in those cases you would use the objective form of a pronoun after it.

      Speaking of overcompensation, I see this often with “who” vs. “whom” (and “whoever” vs. “whomever”).

  3. Hello, I think there is one mistake in your text. Right here: “For instance, the first of the above subjunctive mood examples is in the PRESENT subjunctive…” The example is this one: ‘If I were President, I wouldn’t put up with it.” The subjunctive in the example is WERE… And were is the PAST SUBJUNCTIVE of the verb to be.

    • Unfortunately, the English language has put it upon itself to grace the presence of ‘were’ in the present. And however odd it is, we must acknowledge it as it is.

      If I were to make an educated guess as to why it’s in the present, I would say that it’s because the hypothetical situation is in the present. For instance;

      If he were lazy, he wouldn’t attend the party.

      The pluperfect (past) subjunctive would be:

      If he were to have been lazy, he wouldn’t have attended the party.

      The distinction is clear when you look at the following clauses’ tenses, respectively;

      present conditional, past conditional

      I know it’s confusing that the formation of the present subjunctive requires a past construction.

  4. Surely in the past, the more correct construction would be:

    If I were to have been President… etc.

    For another more simple example:

    If I were to have returned the book, I never would have opened it a second time.

    Though I understand that this use is somewhat Archaic, surely it’s better to preserve the correct use of the subjunctive rather than lose a mood which all other Latin-rooted languages still have.

    ‘If I had been’ is indicative because the first-person singular perfect conjugation of ‘to have’ is I had. In the present, the subjunctive changes in the first-person singular conjugations.

    Albeit, to play devil’s advocate, an argument could be made that in the present subjunctive, the verb takes the second-person conjugation:

    Indicative: ‘you were’
    Subjunctive: ‘(If) I were’

    If this were(!) to be taken into account in the past subjunctive, then the ‘I had’ would be perfectly valid as the second-person perfect tense of ‘to have’ is ‘you had’.

    Arguments can be made either way, and since I don’t have anything beyond GCSE level English qualifications, I can’t be sure I am correct. However, if I have learned anything from learning French and Spanish, it’s that the subjunctive in English is dying quickly, and since I don’t wish to be criticised in the future by people who don’t understand their own language, I wish for people to utilise the subjunctive more frequently.


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