The Subjunctive Mood

By Jacquelyn Landis

No single part of speech gives writers more grief than the mighty verb. Think about all the elements you must take into consideration when forming verbs. They have tense, number, person, voice, and mood. Where things get especially dicey is with a verb’s mood, in particular, the subjunctive mood.

Take a look at this sentence:

I wish I was/were vacationing on a tropical island instead of at my desk working.

The correct verb choice is the second one: were. It expresses the subjunctive mood, something we use to convey a wish or a condition that isn’t true. And since the speaker isn’t actually vacationing on a tropical island, this is a perfect case for using the subjunctive mood.

Most writers will intuitively plunk in some form of a past-tense version of the verb “to be” in a sentence like our example. The important thing to remember about the subjunctive mood is to choose the correct version. When using the subjunctive mood, the correct version is “were.”

One good test is to mentally add “but I’m not” to the sentence. If that makes it a true statement, then it’s a likely candidate for the subjunctive mood:

I wish I were vacationing on a tropical island instead of at my desk working (but I’m not).

If he were ten feet tall (but he’s not), he could wash the windows without using a ladder.

You might hear that the subjunctive mood is fading from common use, and that’s probably true (Maeve wrote about that on The irrealis “were”). However, it’s still a hallmark of correct usage, and savvy writers will try hard to get it right. Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, got it right in the song “If I Were a Rich Man.” So did Bobby Darin in “If I Were a Carpenter.” It might be one of the worst songs of all time, but the grammar is spot-on.

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12 Responses to “The Subjunctive Mood”

  • Dick

    The converse…inapropriate failure to use the subjunctive seems to be spreading on TV news. As in “if the car hadn’t stopped, he may have died.”

    (But the car did stop, and he didn’t die. “Might have” seems the right usage there. Aren’t TV newsreaders supposed to be professional in their use of lamguage? )

  • Michael Batey

    And Midge Ure got it wrong in the song ‘If I Was’.

  • Precise Edit

    Hey! I like that song.

    Several years ago, I was visiting elementary classrooms to review language arts programs. One teacher had a writing prompt on the board: “If I was a policeman, I would . . . .”

    In my mind, though, this was not as bad as the errors from the Mississippi Department of Education’s language arts guidance materials: http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/mississippi-dept-of-eds-fictional-grammar/.

    Sigh. The fight for clear communication continues.

  • Peter

    The use of “was” for “were” doesn’t bother me much; but what does is something I notice a lot from American speakers: using “would have” instead of “had” (e.g., “if such-and-such would have happened, …”, or “I wish I would have done such-and-such”)

  • Andy Knoedler

    Of course the person who got it right in the song “If I Were a Carpenter” was Tim Hardin, who wrote it in the first place. And it’s far from being “one of the worst songs of all time”.

    Come to think of it, there is an error in that song that bothers me every time I hear it. It occurs in these lines:

    If a tinker were my trade
    Would you still find me
    Carrying the pots I’d made
    Following behind me

    A tinker is actually one who repairs pots, not someone who makes them. I used to live next door to a tinker’s shop in a back alley in Esfahan, Iran. His job was to reseal the bottom of pots after holes had worn through after many hours on the fire.

  • Laurie

    I agree! Verb tenses give me a lot of grief. Sometimes two different forms seem equally correct and I can’t decide which one to use.

    My copy of The New St. Martin’s Handbook says both ways of stating the past subjunctive can be correct, depending on the situation.

    “Because the subjunctive can create a rather formal tone, many people today tend to substitute the indicative in informal conversation.

    If I was a better typist, I would type my own papers.

    Nevertheless, formal writing still requires the use of the subjunctive in the following kinds of subjective clauses: (clauses expressing a wish and clauses expressing a condition that does not exist).”

    Perhaps because I write genre fiction, this loose tone sometimes feels like a better fit.

  • M. Pace

    From the article: “I wish I was/were vacationing on a tropical island instead of at my desk working.”

    But the sentence with “were” instead of “was” still has two serious problems that any good copy-editor would catch:

    1. The phrase “instead of” can be read as comparing “on a tropical island” with “at my desk working” — so the second alternative becomes “vacationing at my desk working,” and

    2. The need for parallel structure requires that “at my desk working” have a verb like “vacationing,” e.g., “I wish I were vacationing on a tropical island instead of being at my desk working.”

    The smoothest rewrite of the sentence, addressing both problems gracefully, is probably this:

    “I wish I were vacationing on a tropical island instead of working at my desk.”

  • Nick

    Do you really want to know how moribund the subjunctive is? You are talking about it and I caught an error of present subjunctive that would only be expressed in formal writing:

    “If that make[s] it a true statement, then it’s a likely candidate for the subjunctive mood.”

    This statement is a condition of uncertainty meaning, in very formal English, it should state, “if that make it a true statement” instead of “makes”. You may ask why? Because “makes” is indicative, but you are not indicating anything; you are stating an uncertain condition. Here’s a way to rewrite it out of subjunctive:

    “If that should make it a true statement” or “Should that make it a true statement”.

    Sigh, the death of the subjunctive can even be found on forums that are meant to try to save it. Nevertheless, if you all be very didactic and do your homework, you shall see the errors for yourself.

  • evanonsense

    Hi everyone,

    Can we say now that

    “If that make[s] it a true statement, then it’s a likely candidate for the subjunctive mood.” (omitting [s])

    is wrong. While

    “If that should make it a true statement” or “Should that make it a true statement”.

    is correct?

    Or can we consider both to be correct?

  • Nick

    Both are correct and then some. You can drop the “s” and be considered correct, but very pretentious English, which is best saved for a college paper. If you use “should” it is considered more correct than saying “if that makes it a true statement,” but all of these are technically correct in the mixed subjunctive world of Modern English. Back in old and middle English, “if” would have always taken the subjunctive, but not necessary anymore.

  • nene

    is it right to say”I suggested that he eat the food” or “I suggested that he eats the food” ?

  • Nick

    I suggested that he EAT the food is correct. EATS is never correct in this situation.

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