How to Get into a Subjunctive Mood
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.”
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