Most of us use phrases such as “if I were you,” “if need be,” “be that as it may,” “God bless you,” “far be it from me,” and so on—but few of us are aware that we are employing the subjunctive mood when we do so.
This lack of awareness is not surprising given that strict use of the subjunctive is now quite rare, even in the most formal speaking and writing situations. Astute communicators, however, understand the grammatical nuances of this mood and can recognize when it is being used correctly (or not!).
A Little Background about the Subjunctive Mood
Before we go any further, bear in mind that mood is distinct from tense (past, present, future, etc.) and voice (passive or active). Those three elements, along with person and number, constitute the five properties of English verbs.
The concept of mood in English is complex, and the indicative and subjunctive moods are at times conflated. Simply put, an indicative verb makes a factual statement, whereas a subjunctive verb denotes a hypothetical or doubtful statement. Consider these sentences:
- If I were you, I would increase my weekly contribution to the company’s retirement fund.
- I wish that his report were more succinct.
- We recommend that the trip be postponed until next year.
- The finance department requests that Marcus submit updated budget projections each month.
When stating a fact—that is, when using the indicative mood—we would never write “I were,” “report were,” “trip be,” or “Marcus submit.” But these verbs are used appropriately in the examples above because each sentence is describing a situation that is hypothetical, conditional, or contrary to fact, and such constructions logically call for the subjunctive mood:
- The situation is clearly hypothetical: I cannot be you.
- His report is not, in fact, succinct, so the sentence speaks of a hypothetical situation.
- The trip is not currently postponed, so the subjunctive mood is appropriate to suggest a possibility rather than an actuality.
- At present, Marcus is not submitting updated budget projections each month, so we use the subjunctive mood to express the mere possibility of his doing so.
How Do We Express the Subjunctive Mood?
For the present subjunctive mood of most verbs, we use the form of a verb that usually serves as the third-person plural—that is, the form without the s ending—regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural:
- Indicative: The man leaves home every morning for work.
- Subjunctive: The sheriff insisted that the man leave town and never return.
- Indicative: Hilda works from home most days.
- Subjunctive: Her supervisor would prefer that Hilda work in the office.
For the irregular verb to be, we use be for all present tense subjunctive mood verbs and were for all past tense forms, regardless, again, of whether the subject is singular or plural:
- Indicative: Julio was president of his class.
- Subjunctive: If Julio were president of his class, the meetings would be more orderly.
- Indicative: I am studying French in preparation for my trip next fall.
- Subjunctive: If I were to study French, I would be better prepared for my trip next fall.
The Word If Does Not Always Signal the Subjunctive Mood
Of course, not every clause starting with if requires a verb in the subjunctive mood. Many if statements are simply expressing the conditions necessary for something to be true, and the indicative mood is usually the best fit when these conditions are more likely than not to be met. For example, when we write (or say) “If he arrives [not the subjunctive arrive] on time, we will have dinner before the show,” we are implying that our companion’s punctuality is not only possible but also quite probable.
Sometimes we must understand the context before deciding whether the subjunctive mood is the right choice—as with these two options:
- Indicative: If Smith is chosen as the corporation’s next CEO, she will likely change several controversial hiring practices.
- Subjunctive: If Smith were chosen as the corporation’s next CEO, she would likely change several controversial hiring practices.
If the odds are in Smith’s favor—say, because she is regarded as the most qualified candidate—then we would probably use the indicative If Smith is chosen. But if her chances of landing the position seem remote, we could convey this uncertain, hypothetical outcome by the subjunctive If Smith were chosen.
Knowing when to apply the subjunctive mood can be challenging. Visit Merriam-Webster’s article for more on this topic, including a helpful explanation that underscores the complexity of recognizing when an if statement is truly subjunctive or merely conditional.
Which of the following sentences require verbs in the subjunctive mood?
- If I was Sam, I would hire an assistant now before the hiring freeze takes effect.
- The committee suggested that Dr. Jones is chosen as the next chief of staff.
- As August approaches, every school child wishes that his or her vacation was longer.
- It is critical that every potential donor gives blood during this shortage.
- If my playing the bagpipes yesterday before 8 a.m. was annoying, I apologize.
- If it wasn’t for your help, I’d still be locked out of my car.
- If I WERE Sam, I would hire an assistant now before the hiring freeze takes effect.
- The committee suggested that Dr. Jones BE chosen as the next chief of staff.
- As August approaches, every school child wishes that his or her vacation WERE longer.
- It is critical that every potential donor GIVE blood during this shortage.
- In this sentence, WAS is correct because the statement is likely to be true.
- If it WEREN’T for your help, I’d still be locked out of my car.
Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2023.