by Davy Kraken
A library featuring commonly committed errors of the English language.
|Does the conjugation of the red verb in the following sentence seem strange to you given that the subject is “I”?
I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
This is what is called the subjunctive mood. It’s used when talking about hypothetical situations or events that the speaker wants to happen or imagines happening but aren’t certain to occur. The above example represents a very conspicuous appearance of the subjunctive, but you may sometimes speak or write it without even realizing.
There are only three instances in which the conjugation of the subjunctive is different from the indicative, the latter of which is what one might call the “typical” mood:
All subjects for “to be” in the present tense
Third-person singular (he/she/it) for other verbs in the present tense
First-person singular and third-person singular of “to be” in the past tense
Below is a table, which features “to be” as the irregular subjunctive verb and “to go” as a regular one. All other verbs follow the pattern of “to go,” only differing from the indicative in third-person singular.
Present Indicative: I am You are He/she/it is We are They are
Here are common situations in which you will find the subjunctive.
This is a formal term for a case such as the example at the very beginning of this entry. A protasis is the subordinate clause in an if-then statement, and when it expresses a hypothetical situation, the subjunctive is used. For more information on clauses, see this entry: "Clauses" .
If I were president, things would be a lot different.
I would travel the world if I were rich.
Not all if-then sentences with “would” or “could” call for the subjunctive. If, for example, the protasis is not necessarily unexpected or there is a question being posed as a challenge, the subjunctive is not appropriate. In the first case, notice how you could replace “if” with “when”:
I would give my dog a treat if he was good.
If you are so smart, why couldn’t you answer that easy question?
“As if” and “As Though”
Similar to a counterfactual protasis, these phrases trigger the subjunctive because the situation they describe is hypothetical or uncertain.
As if one time were not enough, she did it again.
He’s an adult, but sometimes he acts as though he were two years old.
“May” and “Let”
When you see these words, which reflect hope or doubt, they often signal a need for the subjunctive:
May he rest in peace.
Let it snow.
If I may be so blunt, I think that’s a foolish idea.
Verbs, adjectives, and nouns that express a command, request, or desire call for use of the subjunctive. Here is a partial list of some such phrases:
Verbs: Advise, Ask, Demand, Desire, Insist, Mandate, Move (in the Parliamentary Sense), Propose, Recommend, Request, Suggest, Urge
Adjectives: Adamant, Desirable, Essential, Imperative, Important, Insistent, Necessary, Urgent, Vital
Nouns: Advice, Demand, Desire, Insistence, Mandate, Motion (in the Parliamentary Sense), Proposal, Recommendation, Request, Suggestion
I recommended that they cease and desist.
I move that the resolution be tabled.
He was adamant that I come.
It is necessary that he take his medication.
His demand that the opposing force surrender was not met.
Their desire was that the CEO resign.
There are two important things to note about each of these examples. First, there is always a “that,” at least implied, between the subjunctive verb and the phrase that causes it. Secondly, the subjunctive verb is always in its present tense regardless of the tense of the initial verb.
The verb “to wish” followed by the verb “to be” entails using the subjunctive:
I wish your mother were here to see this.
He wishes he were young again.
Relic Subjunctive Phrases
Below are examples of common phrases that include a subjunctive verb. They developed when the subjunctive was more common in English, but the reasoning behind them is still sometimes evident:
As it were
Be that as it may
Come what may
Far be it from me
(May God) bless you, damn it, have mercy, etc.
(May) peace be with you
So be it
Suffice it to say
The powers that be
Till death do us part
Truth be told
This is not an exhaustive list of where you will find the subjunctive in English, but these are its most common occurrences, which shows just how rare it is nowadays.