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Using the Subjunctive Mood in English

Although uses for the subjunctive mood in English are rare, they are difficult enough to make a grown man cry. You can form subjunctives with were, had, if and even as though. The subjunctive is used to indicate conditions that aren’t true. It also appears in commands, wishes, and requests.

Using subjunctives with “were”

Tevye, the main character in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, sings “If I Were a Rich Man” with the sadness of a man who knows that he’ll never be anything but poor. Tevye’s song is about a condition contrary to fact — something that is not true. Take note of the verb in the title: were. Normally (that is to say, in an indicative sentence) the subject–verb pair would be I was. But Tevye sings If I were because he isn’t a rich man. The verb were is in subjunctive mood.

Here are some examples of present and future tense subjunctives:

Subjunctive: If Roger were an honorable spy, he would not reveal the atomic secret hidden in the bean burrito.
Why it’s subjunctive: Roger is not an honorable spy, and he’s going to blab the secret.
What the normal subject-verb pair would be: Roger was.

To sum up, in subjunctive sentences, were is usually all you need (unlike in the Beatles’ song, when love is all you need). Here are a few details about subjunctive for present or future statements of conditions contrary to fact:

  • Use were for all subjects in the part of the sentence that expresses what is not true. (If she were entranced by Max’s explanation.)

  • For the other part of the sentence, use the helping verb would. (Lola would stare at him in silence.)

  • Never use the helping verb would in the untrue part of the sentence. For example:

    Wrong: If I would have been president, I would ask the Martian colony to secede.
    Right: If I were president, I would ask the Martian colony to secede.

As though may sometimes sub for if in a condition-contrary-to-fact sentence. Check out the following:

Subjunctive: Eggworthy hurtled through the air as though a giant metal device were intent on scrambling him.
Why it’s subjunctive: Eggworthy is not being pursued by giant egg-beaters. He is actually hurtling through the air because he is on a skateboard with one bad wheel.
What the normal subject-verb pair would be: Giant metal device was.

Creating subjunctives with “had”

Subjunctives also pop up from time to time with the helping verb had. For past tense sentences, the had belongs in the part of the sentence that is contrary to fact. The contrary-to-fact (that is, the lie) part of the sentence may begin with if, or the if may be understood.

Here are a few examples of the past subjunctive:

Subjunctive with the word if: If Lola had known about the atomic secret, she would not have eaten that burrito.
Subjunctive without the word if: Had Lola known about the atomic secret, she would not have eaten that burrito.
Why it’s subjunctive: Lola knew nothing about the atomic secret; Roger told her that the crunch in the burrito came from an undercooked bean.
What the normal subject-verb pair would be: Lola knew.

Using subjunctives with commands, wishes, and requests

Larry loves to exercise his royal power, so he needs many subjunctive verbs:

His Majesty decrees that all his subjects be counted and then beheaded.
His Majesty asks that the governor of each province climb the nearest Alp and jump off the top.
His Majesty further insists that his favorite wedding planner remain in the palace.

The italicized verbs are all subjunctive. These sentences need subjunctives because they express wishes, requests, or indirect commands.

In everyday communication, many speakers of perfectly good English avoid the subjunctive and use an infinitive or the helping verb should instead. Here are Larry’s requests, with infinitives or should instead of subjunctive verbs:

His Majesty wants his subjects to be counted and then beheaded.
His Majesty says that the governor of each province should climb the nearest Alp and jump off the top.
His Majesty wants his favorite wedding planner to remain in the palace.
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