Welcome to the start of another week at the GWN blog! Today we have Jim Cort talking about the subjunctive mood.
Verbs, in addition to number and tense, also have mood. Mood is the trickiest aspect of verbs. The mood our verbs are in nearly all the time is the indicative mood. They indicate; they make a statement; they tell the truth about something.
But it’s also possible to say something that is not true. We can wish that things were other than they are. We can suggest that things be changed. We can hope they would be. This is the business of the subjunctive mood.
The subjunctive is kind of a stealth construction. Most of the time it looks like the indicative. The present form is the same as the regular unadorned form of the verb. This means you’ll notice it only in the third person singular (he, she, it), which has no final –s. You’ll also see it in the verb be, which has the form be instead of am, is, and are. The past subjunctive is the same as the past tense except once again for be, which uses were for all persons.
So, how does this work? Here are some examples: If I were ten years younger… We propose the mayor remain in office. It’s essential that the Army do its part. If this boulder weren’t here, we could pass by.
All of these sentences express thoughts contrary to reality. They are wishes; they are proposals; they are conditions or possibilities. The use of the subjunctive “defuses” the statements. They are not as definite as indicative statements.
You’ll find the subjunctive used after verbs like:
- to advise
- to ask
- to command
- to demand
- to desire
- to insist
- to propose
- to recommend
- to request
- to suggest
- to urge
or after phrases like:
- It is best (that)
- It is crucial (that)
- It is desirable (that)
- It is essential (that)
- It is imperative (that)
- It is important (that)
- It is recommended (that)
- It is urgent (that)
- It is vital (that)
- It is a good idea (that)
- It is a bad idea (that)
Having said all this, there’s one more thing I need to say. Just about nobody uses the subjunctive in English any more. Most grammar experts agree that it’s little used and hardly missed. H. W. Fowler, the Great Guru of Grammar, called it “moribund” in 1926, and it hasn’t gotten any livelier since.
Most English speakers aren’t even aware there is such a thing as the subjunctive until they study languages like German or French or Spanish, where it plays a more active role. Interestingly enough, expressions in the subjunctive are commonly used today:
- Be that as it may
- God bless you
- Long live the king
- So be it
- If it please the court…
Most people think of these expressions as old fashioned, not subjunctive. And so, of course, they are.
What does all of this mean to you? Nowadays, subjunctive constructions have largely been replaced with “should” or “would” constructions: Instead of We propose the mayor remain in office,the trend is We propose the mayor should remain in office. Sometimes no helping verb is used. If you write If I was ten years younger…, the Grammar Police won’t come knocking on your door. Chances are no one will notice at all
Of course there are still grammar sourpusses who insist on If I were… These folks are in the minority. The language belongs to the people, and the people have decided that subjunctive is no longer useful. Don’t be thrown if you see it someplace, but don’t be bullied into using it yourself if you don’t want to.
The moral of the story is: if you use the subjunctive according to the guidelines here, you won’t be wrong. And if you choose not to use the subjunctive, you won’t be wrong.
It’s a win-win situation. How often do you find one of those?
Cindy here again!
Thanks for being here, Jim. Thanks for the great information!
August 19, 2013 at 2:13 pm
I still use the subjunctive occasionally but in the context of an historical romance novel. Thanks for a good discussion.