Major and Minor Moods in English Grammar

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In English grammar, mood is the quality of a verb that conveys the writer's attitude toward a subject. Also known as mode and modality.

In traditional grammar, there are three major moods:

  1. The indicative mood is used to make factual statements (the declarative) or pose questions. (Example: the interrogative)
  2. The imperative mood is used to express a request or command.
  3. The (comparatively rare) subjunctive mood is used to show a wish, doubt, or anything else contrary to fact.

In addition, there are several minor moods in English, as discussed below.


"Mood is an alteration, apparently in the 16th century, of the earlier mode, a borrowing of Latin modus 'manner,' which was also used in this grammatical sense. The alteration may have been due to the influence of the unrelated word mood 'frame of mind,' which has an evident semantic affinity with it."
(Bas Aarts et al., The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2014)

Different Perspectives on Mood in English

"[Mood is a] verb category which is not so useful in the grammar of English as it is for some other languages and has to do with the degree of reality attributed to the happening described by the verb. The indicative mood (that of normal finite forms of the verb) contrasts with the 'unreality' of the subjunctive mood. The imperative, infinitive and interrogative are also sometimes considered to be moods of the verb."

(Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

"The term mood is used in two somewhat different ways by traditional grammarians, a fact which detracts from its usefulness.

"On the one hand, different types of sentence or clause, such as declarative, interrogative and imperative, are said to be in these different moods. This is probably the sense in which mood is most often used when discussing English.

"On the other hand, different forms of finite verbs, such as indicative and subjunctive, are said to be in these different moods. As subjunctives are rare in English, mood is not so often used in this sense when discussing English."
(James R. Hurfurd, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

"Mood is a grammatical category associated with the semantic dimension of modality. Mood is to modality as tense is to time: tense and mood are categories of grammatical form, while time and modality are the associated categories of meaning.

"Modality deals mainly with two related contrasts: factual vs. non-factual, and asserted vs. non-asserted."
(Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K.

Puillum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Major Moods in English

Indicative Mood

"Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it's all over much too soon."(Woody Allen)

Imperative Mood

"Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."(President John F. Kennedy)

Subjunctive Mood

"If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray." (from Fiddler on the Roof)

Minor Moods in English

"[In addition to the three major moods of English] there are also minor moods, exemplified by the following examples:

The distinction between major and minor mood is not clear-cut, but intuitively minor moods (1) are highly restricted in their productivity, (2) are peripheral to communication, (3) are probably low in their relative frequency of occurrence, and (4) vary widely across languages."
(A. Akmajian, R. Demers, A. Farmer, and R. Harnish, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. MIT Press, 2001)

  • Tag declarative
    You've been drinking again, haven't you.
  • Tag imperative
    Leave the room, will you!
  • Pseudo-imperative
    Move and I'll shoot!
    Move or I'll shoot!
  • Alternative questions
    Does John resemble his father or his mother? (with rising intonation on father and falling intonation on mother
  • Exclamative
    What a nice day!
  • Optative
    May he rest in peace.
  • "One more" sentence
    One more beer and I'll leave.
  • Curse
    You pig, bag of wind, . . .!