How to Get into a Subjunctive Mood

By Mark Nichol

The subjunctive mood is a verb form that expresses any one of a variety of sentiments that are in some sense not necessary true: a potential action or a possibility, a judgment or an opinion, or an emotion or a wish. Here are some examples of statements in the subjunctive mood:

  • “If that were the case, I wouldn’t be here.”
  • “It’s about time we went home.”
  • “If I had been there, I would have done something.”
  • “It is necessary for you to have followed the news to understand the joke.”
  • “If I should fail, what will happen?”

Here are statements that appear superficially similar but are presented in the indicative mood, which is employed for factual statements and positive beliefs:

  • “If that is the case, I’m leaving.”
  • “I want to go home now.”
  • “Now that I’m here, I’m going to do something about it.”
  • “Are you following the news?”
  • “If you’re going to fail, at least do it with class.”

Most of the forms in the first list and those expressing other variants of the subjunctive mood give us little or no trouble, but the form demonstrated in the first example in the first list often throws writers for a loop: For example, do you write “I wish I was rich,” or “I wish I were rich”?

Frequently, people erroneously use the indicative mood when they should use the subjunctive. For example, “He asked me if I was in charge” uses the indicative mood, so it seems natural to use the same form of the verb “to be” (was) for a similar but conditional sentence: “If I was in charge, I would do things differently.”

But is that right? To test the form you’ve used to see whether it is correct, reorder the syntax so the verb comes first: Does “Was I in charge, I would do things differently” make sense, or is “Were I in charge, I would do things differently” logical? The latter sentence is obviously the correct one, so the proper sentence starting with “If I” is “If I were in charge, I would do things differently.”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


6 Responses to “How to Get into a Subjunctive Mood”

  • Maeve

    Mark,
    Have you noticed what is happening with this form of the subjunctive?
    “If I had been there, I would have done something.”

    On television, in the mouths of non-actors being interviewed, news announcers, and actors in dramas I hear instead:

    “If I would have been there, I would have done something.”
    “If I was there, I would have done something.”

    Drives me wild.

  • Peter

    “It’s about time we went home.”
    “It is necessary for you to have followed the news to understand the joke.”

    How are these examples of the subjunctive?

    “If I should fail, what will happen?”

    Mixed…should be “if I should fail, what would happen?” (but “if I fail, what will happen?” has the same meaning)

    Frequently, people erroneously use the indicative mood when they should use the subjunctive. For example, “He asked me if I was in charge” uses the indicative mood, so it seems natural to use the same form of the verb “to be” (was) for a similar but conditional sentence: “If I was in charge, I would do things differently.”

    But is that right?

    Yes, it is. The indicative is perfectly fine in modern English.

  • John White

    >“Were I in charge, I would do things differently” logical? The latter sentence is obviously the correct one…

    It is /not/ obvious to most people, which is why they get it wrong

    >“If I had been there, I would have done something.”

    I believe the correct format is, “I woulda went and saw him if I’d have knew where he was at.” Lots of people around me talk this way, so it must be correct.

    Echo Peter’s comment about “if I should fail, what would happen?” I think it’s better balance when there’s past tense (should/could/would) in both clauses. I also agree with his “if I fail, what will happen?” Perhaps he and I had the same Spanish teacher, which is probably where most Americans learn about the subjunctive in the first place.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    IMHO a distinction needs to be drawn between colloquial speech and more formal prose (quality media, business reports, academic articles, etc.). What may be ‘perfectly fine’ for Peter with his indicatives in colloquial settings may be less well received in more erudite contexts.

  • Peter

    Perhaps he and I had the same Spanish teacher, which is probably where most Americans learn about the subjunctive in the first place.

    I’m not American and have never taken Spanish, so I doubt it 🙂

    What may be ‘perfectly fine’ for Peter with his indicatives in colloquial settings may be less well received in more erudite contexts.

    But isn’t. The indicative is considered standard accepted usage in all registers in English (with the possible exception of homework for introductory classical language courses, where distinctions in the original language are denoted by the use of particular stock phrases in the English, rather than natural translation…)

  • Max

    It behoves me to complain about the following statement from your introductory sentence, “sentiments that are in some sense not necessary true:” .

Leave a comment: