6 Forms of the Subjunctive Mood

By Mark Nichol

Are you in a subjunctive mood? Then you should frame sentences in one of the six following forms.

The subjunctive mood is used in cases in which what is expressed is not necessarily real, as opposed to the indicative case, which is applied to factual statements. The key difference is a change in the form of a given verb: Am or was is supplanted by were, be takes the place of are, or singular active verbs lose their -s or -es endings. In conversation, it is common for speakers to fail to distinguish between the moods, but in careful writing, the distinction must be made.

1. Counterfactual
In this subjunctive construction, the writer expresses a notion contrary to fact, such as “If I were you, I’d return it to the store.”

2. Imperative
In this class of the subjunctive mood, commands and demands are expressed: “I demanded that she walk away.”

3. Necessity
This subjunctive form refers to requirement: “It is necessary that she fill out the form first.”

4. Proposition
This category applies to proposals and suggestions: “We proposed that they reconsider the offer.”

5. Supposition
In this form, the writer expresses a possibility: “If I were to accept the position, I’d have to relocate.”

6. Wish
This type of subjunctive form deals with expressions of desire: “I wish that I were able to go back and do it over again.”

The subjunctive case also survives in such idiomatic phrases as “as it were,” “be that as it may,” “be they [one thing or another],” and “would that it were.”

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8 Responses to “6 Forms of the Subjunctive Mood”

  • opsimath

    Another fascinating piece, Mark. The subjunctive mood is rapidly disappearing from the speech and writing of all bu the most careful users of our wonderful language, although it seems to me it is more evident in US English than in the UK subset.

    Just one small thing occurred to me on reading this learned and welcome essay, that, in every instance you show us, you could have left out the word ‘that’; am I correct, or as usual, not so in thinking this?

    Either way, a most welcome start to the week – thank you.

  • Nelson Carter

    Opsimath: I saw only one optional “that”, and that was in No. 6.
    Another error that seems more common than ever, especially in broadcasting, is the use of “may” where “might” would make more sense: “If that had happened, she might have survived.”

  • John White

    As Massachusetts English teacher Lisa Huber points out, the past tense of “be that as it may” is “were that as it might.”

    Try to fit that into the next scholarly conversation you have.

  • dragonwielder

    @John – I will keep an eye out for opportunities to say that!

    The first time I ever came across the subjunctive mood was at the end of third-year Spanish in high school – and then again when I took a semester of Spanish in college. I don’t recall it ever being a topic in any of my English classes.

    Great article, Mark!

  • Oliver Lawrence

    As for “optional ‘that'”, it can often be clearer to leave it in. This is because it can help the reader avoid stumbling over what follows; it is also clearer for non-native speakers; and machine translation will tend to make less of a pig’s ear, too.

  • Matt Gaffney

    I think that example #2 is incorrect. The subjunctive mood and the imperative mood are mutually exclusive. One is not part of the other. Indeed, the imperative is one of the three moods in English. The third is the indicative. Example #2 duplicates example #4. Commands are the exclusive province of the imperative mood. The subjunctive is very tricky. I think this article needs to be rewritten after additional research.

  • Warsaw Will

    @Matt – The example in #2 is correct enough, but that’s because it’s not an imperative, at least it’s not in imperative mood. Like #4, it is reported speech, but it could be said that it is reporting an imperative: “Walk Away!” So perhaps “reported imperative” might be a better term.

    It’s usual to say in EFL/ESL teaching that subjunctive is used after certain reporting verbs, such as:

    advise, ask, command, demand, desire, insist, propose, recommend, request, suggest, urge

    With some of these – command, demand and insist – for example, the original direct speech would have indeed been imperatives, with others it’s a matter of requests, proposals or suggestions.

    I think Matt’s comparison with #4 is correct, and it might have been better to put them together, and say that the subjunctive is used after certain verbs of ordering, requesting and suggesting.

    And I think it should be pointed out that #3 only happens after certain adjectives of necessity:

    crucial, desirable, essential, imperative, important, recommended, urgent, vital

    I think it would be more helpful to say what structures subjunctive is used in (which are very few), rather than trying to assign certain ideas such as necessity to it. We don’t use it after the verb “need”, for example.

    And opsimath is right, for us Brits, this is all very formal: “was” is gradually replacing past subjunctive “were” in conditionals, and we prefer constructions with “should” to present subjunctive:

    We proposed that they should reconsider the offer.
    It is vital she should contact me as soon as possible.

    But unlike osimath, I don’t see that as any great loss. Subjunctive seems more like an exception to the norms of English to me, rather than something essentially English.

  • venqax

    Very useful and interesting, MN. The subjunctive is disappearing in English. And I think this posting demonstrates why.

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