Definition and Examples of Subjunctive Mood in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

On the set of Casablanca
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In English grammar, the subjunctive mood represents a verb expressing wishes, stipulating demands, or making statements contrary to fact. The word subjunctive comes from the Latin word "subjungere" meaning to subjoin, bind, or subordinate.

The present subjunctive is the bare form of a verb or a verb with no prefix or suffix. It does not show agreement with its subject. (Example: "I strongly recommend that he retire.") There are two patterns of the present subjunctive:

The formulaic subjunctive is often seen in idioms and other types of figurative language and the mandative subjunctive is often seen in expressions

The only distinctive form of the "past" subjunctive is the word were. It is used with singular subjects in conditional sentences and with the subordinating conjunctions as if and as though. (Example: "I love him as if he were my son.")

Guidelines for Using the Subjunctive

The subjunctive may be used in the following circumstances in speech and writing.

  1. Contrary-to-fact clauses beginning with if:
    "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?" (Abraham Lincoln)
  2. Contrary-to-fact clauses expressing a wish:
    "At that moment, I had the most desperate wish that she were dead."
    (Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich in Presumed Innocent, 1990)
  3. That clauses after verbs making commands or requests (including ask, demand, insist, propose, request, and suggest):
    "I demand that he leave at once."
  4. Statements of necessity:
    "It's necessary that she be in the room with you."
  5. Fixed expressions that remain in their original form or close to it:
    as it were, be that as it may, far be it from me, heaven forbid, if need be, so be it, suffice it to say

It is worth noting that the subjunctive mood is used less frequently in informal settings than in formal ones. For example, it is arguably more common to hear someone say "If I was you" than to hear them say "If I were you. . In many instances, the indicative mood has come to replace the subjunctive. Because it is difficult to use the subjunctive correctly in informal speech and even writing in the context of modern English, many scholars agree that this mood has run its course.

  • "As with the misuse of whom instead of who, ... using the subjunctive wrongly is worse than not using it all, and will make you look pompous and silly," (Marsh and Hodsdon, 2010).
  • "The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery as soon as possible," (Maugham 1949).

The Were Subjunctive

The were subjunctive essentially occupies its own category within this mood due to how often the verb were is found in the subjunctive mood and how closely it has come to represent the form. As the following scholars explain, the were subjunctive refers to nonreal scenarios—when used properly—and is today often replaced with a combination of the past tense "would" and the auxiliary "be."

  • "Teachers call this by a formidable word, subjunctive, meaning lacking in reality. What it refers to is actually the Fairy Tale Syndrome. If I were a rich man, could be such a mood. It refers to something that is not possible. If the possibility exists, the sentence would read: If I was a rich man," (Dumond 2012).
  • "Unlike the mandative subjunctive, the were-subjunctive in counterfactual if-clauses is a recessive feature of standard written English. It is not being replaced by a modal but, instead, by indicative was. Would + be instead of were in counterfactual if-clauses is still largely confined to informal, spoken English. It is meeting with strong prescriptive reaction, especially in the US. One side-effect of this, so to speak, is hypercorrect use of were in non-counterfactuals," (Leech et al., 2012).

Subjunctive Mood Examples in Media

To better understand how verbs in the subjunctive mood appear in formal and informal speech and writing, read the following examples from literature and movies.

  • "I wouldn't bring up Paris if I were you. It's poor salesmanship."
    (Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca, 1942)
  • "Even the dog, an animal used to bizarre surroundings, developed a strange, off-register look, as if he were badly printed in overlapping colors."
    (S.J. Perelman, quoted by Roy Blount, Jr., in Alphabet Juice, 2008)
  • "Well sir, all I can say is if I were a bell, I'd be ringing!"
    (Frank Loesser, "If I Were a Bell." Guys and Dolls, 1950)
  • "If music be the food of love, play on."
    (Duke Orsino in "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare)
  • "If I see one more shirttail flapping while I'm captain of this ship, woe betide the sailor; woe betide the OOD; and woe betide the morale officer. I kid you not."
    (Humphrey Bogart as Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, 1954)
  • "In the night he awoke and held her tight as though she were all of life and it was being taken away from him."
    (Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, 1940)

Sources

  • Dumond, Val. Grammar for Grownups: A Guide to Grammar and Usage for Everyone Who Has to Put Words on Paper Effectively. HarperCollins, 2012.
  • Leech, Geoffrey, et al. Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Marsh, David, and Amelia Hodsdon. Guardian Style. 3rd ed. Random House, 2010.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Subjunctive Mood in English." ThoughtCo, Dec. 2, 2020, thoughtco.com/subjunctive-mood-grammar-1692151. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, December 2). Definition and Examples of Subjunctive Mood in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/subjunctive-mood-grammar-1692151 Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Subjunctive Mood in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/subjunctive-mood-grammar-1692151 (accessed October 26, 2021).