Subjunctive Mood

by Tina Blue
April 22, 2006

      One common source of confusion for many people who speak and write in English is the use of the subjunctive mood.  Most European languages, both Romance languages and Germanic languages, still make heavy use of the subjunctive mood, but in English there are only in a few situations in which the subjunctive is still required.

      As a general rule, an "if" statement that expresses a condition contrary to fact or a wish statement expressing strong desire should be in the subjunctive mood. 


      ~If I were you, I would watch what I say.

      ~I wish I were still at home in bed!

      If the "if" clause expresses a condition not contrary to fact, it should be in the indicative mood:

      ~If I was five minutes late, my pay was docked for a full half hour.

      Some people assume that all "if" clauses call for the subjunctive, and many incorrect sentences result from this misconception. Here is an example of incorrect usage that I found in an article online:


      ~There were many secret abortions there because if a girl was found                   out to be pregnant, she was kicked out of the college along with the                   father (if he were a student).

That should be "if he was a student," because it is not expressing something contrary to fact.

Another thing people are confused about is what the subjunctive actually is. I have heard a number of people refer to the subjunctive as a "tense." Tense is a time marker (past, present, future, etc.) The subjunctive is not a tense but a mood.  The subjunctive really is not about time but about the psychological conditions that pertain to the situation being expressed.

One reason the subjunctive is so common in other languages is that it is considered more polite to say, for example, "Quisiero una Coca Cola" ("I should like to have a Coca Cola.") than to say "Quiero una Coca Cola " ("I want a Coca Cola.")  You can see why the latter phrasing would be considered too blunt to be polite--but we English speakers are nothing if not blunt and direct, right?

H.W. Fowler, whose Modern English Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965) is a reference respected by grammarians on both sides of the Atlantic, offers a good way to decide when the subjunctive must be used, and when it definitely should not. He suggests that we think of the subjunctive as occurring in "Never-Never land," not in the land of things that have actually occurred. 

In other words, despite popular confusion, the fact that a sentence has an "if" clause is not what determines the subjunctive. Let's look at one of the examples I presented earlier:

       ~If I was five minutes late, my pay was docked for a full half hour.

In this sentence it is correct to say was (indicative mood) because the sentence refers to a situation where sometimes the speaker actually was late to work, and thus would suffer the consequences. 

Here is a different situation, one in which the subjunctive is needed:

      ~I worried that I might have my hourly wages docked if I were late to                    work.

In this sentence, the speaker has not come in to work late.  He is just concerned that if he should ever come in late, he might get penalized.  The coming-in-to-work-late "event" is an imaginary (hypothetical) construct, not something that already exists in the real world.

The subjunctive is also used to express a strong wish for something not actualized:

            ~I wish I were at home in bed right now.

Since I am not at home in bed, that wish is for something in "Never-Never land."

Another use for the subjunctive is in a sentence like this: 

     ~I insist that the doctor see your wife.

If that sentence were* written "I insist that the doctor sees your wife," it would mean something quite different.  The first sentence suggests concern for "your wife's" health.  The second sentence suggests that "your wife" is having an affair with the doctor, whether you want to believe me or not when I tell you about it.  The subjunctive verb in the first sentence has the value of "should see" or "must see.

*Notice that in my sentence above I wrote, "If that sentence were written. . . ."  The point is that the sentence was not written in the way that I was about to indicate, so it's another "Never-Never land" construction--an imaginary version of the sentence that was actually written.

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