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Writing Tip: July 30, 2001

The Subjunctive Mood

Examine the verbs in each of the following sentences:

1. If Harrison were chosen to be the next chief executive officer of the corporation, several controversial hiring practices would change.

2. If I were you, I would increase my weekly contribution to the company-sponsored retirement fund.

3. I wish that his report were longer.

4. We recommend that the trip be postponed because of violence in the region.

5. The finance department requests that he submit updated budget projections each month.

All the above sentences are correct.

Two terms apply to the mood of English verbs: indicative and subjunctive. An indicative verb makes a statement that is factual, whereas a verb in the subjunctive mood is used to indicate a situation or condition that is hypothetical, doubtful, or conditional.

In the indicative mood, we would never write "Harrison were," "I were," "report were," "trip be," or "he submit," but these verbs are correct in the examples above because each of the sentences is written in the subjunctive mood; that is, in every case, the sentence is describing a situation that is hypothetical or conditional:

1. Harrison is not now the C.E.O., but hypothetically he could be chosen for that position. The conditional nature of the position is suggested by the word if.

2. Again, as the word if makes clear, I am not, in fact, you. So once again the situation is hypothetical and conditional: I would save more only under the condition that I became you.

3. His report is not, in fact, longer, so the sentence speaks of a hypothetical situation.

4. The trip is not currently postponed, so the subjunctive mood is appropriate to suggest a possibility, not an actuality.

5. He is not currently submitting reports monthly, so we use the subjunctive mood to discuss the possibility--not the actuality--of his doing so.

For all verbs except to be, the present subjunctive mood is most often made by omitting the characteristic s ending on verbs with third-person singular subjects. Thus, whereas in the indicative mood we would write "man leaves," in the subjunctive mood we would omit the s on the verb leave: "The judge insisted that the man not leave town." For the verb to be, we simply use be for all present tense subjunctive mood verbs and were for all past tense forms, regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (New York: MJF Books, 1993) points out that while many subjunctive-mood phrases are commonly used in ordinary speech--"if I were you," "if need be," "far be it from me," and so on--strict use of the subjunctive mood is rare, even in the most formal speaking and writing situations (243). Very few people would write, for example, "If he arrive on time, we will have dinner before the show." However, if a form of the verb to be were used in that sentence, all polished writers would agree that the subjunctive is necessary: "If he were [not was] to arrive on time, we could have dinner before the show."

The Harbrace College Handbook (13th edition) lists other common, fixed expressions that are stated in the subjunctive mood: "so be it," "be that as it may," "as it were," and "God bless you" (99-100).

TEST YOURSELF
Which of the following sentences need verbs in the subjunctive mood?

1. If I was Sam, I would hire an assistant now before the hiring freeze takes effect.

2. The committee suggested that Dr. Jones is chosen as the next chief of staff.

3. As August approaches, every school child wishes that his or her vacation was longer.

4. It is critical that every potential donor gives blood during this shortage.

ANSWERS

1. If I WERE Sam, I would hire an assistant now before the hiring freeze takes effect.

2. The committee suggested that Dr. Jones BE chosen as the next chief of staff.

3. As August approaches, every school child wishes that his or her vacation WERE longer.

4. It is critical that every potential donor GIVE blood during this shortage.

Copyright 2001 Get It Write

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