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Subjunctive Mode

Subjunctive mode
Are you old enough to remember the ad jingle “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener …”? Did you ever wonder about I were? This is an example of the subjunctive mode, which refers to the expression of a hypothetical, wishful, or imaginary thought. Sentences using wish and if usually indicate subjunctive mode and require using were as the to be verb form.
Examples:
If I were rich, I’d sail around the world.
He wishes he were in a position to give his employees raises.

When using subjunctive mode with verbs besides were, use the past tense or the past perfect tense (had + verb).
Examples:
I live in Chicago, but I wish I lived in New York.
If I moved there, would you visit?
I wish I had studied more for the test.
It would be better if you had brought the ice cream in a cooler.

Note: Sometimes an if sentence does not require using the subjunctive.
Examples:
If I go to the store, I’ll get you a treat.
I’ll go if I feel like it.

 

Pop Quiz
Correct the verbs in the following sentences as needed.

1. If I was stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he was able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she went to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.
6. If I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back. (Correct)
4. I wish I had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.
6. If I want your advice, I’ll ask for it. (Correct)

Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2008, at 3:24 am


20 Comments

20 Responses to “Subjunctive Mode”

  1. Jane says:

    Glad you enjoyed them, Kim.

  2. Kim says:

    The church bulletin bloopers cracked me up. Too funny!

  3. Leonilo D. Ayos says:

    It is so nice to learn from your lessons.

  4. Carmen says:

    This part of grammar was excelent, It’s just I wanted to know. But It rested me a little doubt:. Subjunctive with verb to be, the first person (I) and third person (he/she) is always WERE? Example: I wish I were so intelligent like you. Or He wishes he were the best student in his class this year. Are these sentences ok? please I wish you corrected my mistakes.
    Thanks a lot.
    I neither know if the website is correct. Excuse me.
    Regards from….Carnen
    e- mail lovelyipaz@live.cl

  5. Michael says:

    Here’s something for which I require assurance. I am constantly running afoul of the spelling and grammar checker in Microsoft Word. Most recently, I typed this sentence [truncated here]: “… so that she might become pregnant, in keeping with his desire that she bear his child.” Microsoft is not happy with my choice of ‘bear’ and suggests ‘bears.’ I know damned well that Microsoft is wrong! My question is this: is it the subjunctive nature of the sentence which would make ‘bear’ correct, or is there some other grammatical rule operating here?

    • Jane says:

      You are correct about the subjunctive nature of the sentence. In the case of your sentence, the use of “his desire” can cause the verb “bear” to have a subjunctive mood because a wish is being expressed. The subjunctive mood pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. The subjective mood is losing ground in spoken English but should still be used in formal speech and writing.

  6. Kenneth Howe Jones, MArch says:

    What I’d like to know is the reasoning behind the use of the plural “I were” instead of the singular “I was”? Seems very arbitrary and even a bit pompous doesn’t it? Is it perhaps from a British preference (or archaic-historic usage)? Or perhaps to just keep the SM rule as simple as possible? As a student of semantics and linguistics over the last fifty years or so, the logic behind this choice has always managed to elude me. It still strikes me as just another of those committee decisions without any real basis. Could you perhaps shed some light on the matter? Thoughts?
    Thanks. KHJ

  7. George Nieves says:

    Your lessons are great and so easy to follow

  8. Silvia German says:

    Dear Jane,
    All the examples above of the subjunctive mode refer to a person or persons. Does usage of “were” in a hypothetical sentence also apply to objects and situations?
    Example:
    If only one option were available which would you prefer?
    Or should it be: “If only one option was available”
    Thanks for your help
    Silvia

    • Jane says:

      Yes, the usage of “were” does apply to an object as well as a person.
      Example: If the firecracker were to explode, it would hurt my ears.

      If only one option were available, which would you prefer?

  9. Serena says:

    I have a burning question and I can’t find a response to that.

    Why is “it is recommended that she consult her tutor” correct and the use of “consults” is wrong? Subject-verb agreement, no?

    • Jane says:

      These two sentences are both examples of the subjunctive mood, which refers to the expression of a hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory thought. The subjunctive mood pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. The subjunctive mood is often used in “that” and “if” clauses.

      Examples:
      She requested that he raise his hand.
      If I were rich, I’d sail around the world.

      Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the example above, where a request or wish is being expressed, he raise, the subjunctive mood is correct. In the second example, a wish contrary to fact is being expressed; therefore, were, which we normally think of as a plural verb, is used with the singular subject I.

      Your example sentence expresses a request, recommendation, or suggestion. The subjunctive mood is losing ground in spoken English but should still be used in formal speech and writing.

  10. José Carlos says:

    I am Brazilian and a “self-taught” English speaker. I learned English like a child learns to speak: by repetition, by comparison, by inference. And the subjunctive mood came, and still comes to me, automatically, because, in Portuguese (my native language), we use it a lot. However, as someone else has already mentioned, Microsoft is always trying to confuse me (as it does in Portuguese too and, I believe, in all other languages because of programming limitations). Thank you very much for your clarifications. They were very helpful. I have already put your address in my favorite bar. Greettings from Brazil! José Carlos

  11. Kusimo samuel olugbenga says:

    Is this sentence correct? ‘I am behind your back’

    • Jane says:

      If you are simply trying to let someone know where you are physically located, your sentence would be better written “I am in back of you,” or “I am behind you.” However, we also have the saying “I have your back” as a way of telling someone “I intend to show my support for you if you’re challenged.”

  12. Jane says:

    Thank you so much for your comments.

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