Subjunctive Mood

Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood is the verb form used to explore a hypothetical situation (e.g., If I were you) or to express a wish, a demand or a suggestion (e.g., I demand he be present).

Easy Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

  • If it were me, I'd go.
  • (As this explores a hypothetical situation, was becomes were.)
  • I wish it were real.
  • (As this expresses a wish, was becomes were.)
  • It is imperative that the game begin at once.
  • (As this expresses a demand, begins becomes begin.)
  • I propose he work full time.
  • (As this expresses a suggestion, works becomes work.)

More about the Subjunctive Mood

This table summarises how a verb changes when it's in the subjunctive mood.
Normal Form Normal Example Subjunctive Form Subjunctive Example
am, are, is
(to be in the present tense)
I am available.
You are lucky.
She is here.
be I demand that I be available.
I ask that you be truthful.
It's essential that she be here.
has
(third person singular of to have in the present tense)
She has a chance. have I demand she have chance.
was
(first person and third person singular of to be in the past tense)
I was free.
He was happy.
were If I were free, I'd go.
I wish he were happy.
prepares, works, sings, etc.
(third-person-singular verbs in the present tense, i.e., ones ending s)
She makes sushi. prepare, work, sing, etc.
(remove the s)
I propose she make sushi.

Real-Life Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

  • If I were in the Beatles, I'd be a good George Harrison. (Musician Noel Gallagher)
The following verbs often attract the subjunctive mood: to ask, to command, to demand, to insist, to order, to recommend, to suggest and to wish.
  • All we ask of a president is that he be likeable. We seem to have given up on the Pentagon's corrupt use of our tax dollars. (Author Donella Meadows)
  • Saddam Hussein systematically violated every UN resolution that demanded he disarm and destroy his chemical and biological weapons. (US politician Henry Waxman)
  • Don't make election popularity a matter of which candidate hires the most creative propagandists. Insist that it be a running conversation with the public. (Actor Ron Howard)
  • If you are a dog and your owner suggests that you wear a sweater suggest that he wear a tail. (Author Fran Lebowitz)
The following adjectives – especially when used with the word that – often attract the subjunctive mood: crucial, essential, important, imperative and necessary
  • It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. (Political activist Thomas Paine)
  • When unseen forces come together to provide a man with the strength and capacity to achieve something great, it is essential that he use the time responsibly and timely. (Author Eyler Robert Coates)
The subjunctive mood also features in some well-known terms.
  • God bless you.
  • (I wish that "God bless you".)
  • God save the Queen.
  • (I wish that "God save the Queen".)
  • May The Force be with you. (Star Wars)
  • The real scientist is ready to bear hardship and, if need be, starvation rather than let anyone dictate which direction his work must take. (Biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi)
  • (If needs be is also common.)
What is mood? The mood of a verb tells us how it is to be regarded (e.g., as a fact, a command, a wish, an uncertainty). There are three major moods in English:

The Indicative Mood

The indicative mood states a fact or asks a question.
  • Lee is eating a pie.
  • Is Lee eating another pie?

The Imperative Mood

The imperative mood expresses a command or a request.
  • Eat the pie!
  • Please eat the pie.

The Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood shows a wish, a suggestion or condition contrary to fact.
  • I wish it were possible to protect the pies.
  • I suggest that Lee be kept away from the pies.
  • If I were Lee, I would avoid the pies.

Why Should I Care about the Subjunctive Mood?

When used in idioms and set phrases (e.g., If I were you, God bless you), the subjunctive mood does not create issues for writers. However, outside set terms, verbs in the subjunctive mood sometimes sound awkward. Mostly, though, they sound right to the native ear.

The subjunctive mood definitely has its place in English grammar, but we shouldn't pretend it isn't starting to fade. And, it's starting to fade for two understandable reasons: firstly, it isn't particularly useful to convey meaning (i.e., the meaning often remains clear if it isn't used), and, secondly, the rules for using it are tricky. In fact, the subjunctive mood is pretty inefficient as a language tool, and as a language develops efficiency always trumps dogma.

That said though, verbs in the subjunctive mood still sound aesthetically pleasing to the native ear, and nobody has started in earnest to condone subjunctive-mood avoidance, so you should use it.

Here's some guidance: If you naturally opt for the verb in the subjunctive mood, use it. If you're unsure whether the normal verb or the subjunctive verb sounds best, use the subjunctive one. If you can't bear how the subjunctive one sounds, have the confidence to use the normal verb.

We will all have different thresholds for what sounds awkward and right, but here are some examples to clarify the guidance.
  • I demand that he be present.
  • (If you naturally go for be, leave it.)
  • It is essential that he is/be there.
  • (If you can't decide between the normal verb (is) and the subjunctive (be), go for the subjunctive one.)
  • I must insist that he lower/lowers his weapon.
  • (If you can't bear how the subjunctive verb (lower) sounds, have the confidence to use the normal one.)
An uncomfortable truth? Even if your subjunctive verb doesn't sound better, using it is bit of an opportunity to show off…and to smugly say "it's in the subjunctive mood" if questioned on it. Winner.

Key Points

  • If you think your verb in the subjunctive mood sounds a little awkward, use it (and enjoy the showing off).
  • If you think your verb in the subjunctive mood sounds awful, bin it (and enjoy today's leniency).
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