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The Subjunctive Mood

An e-newsletter fan came across this sentence: If I were very lucky, I would get the chance to go. She asked, “Shouldn’t I be followed by was, not were, since is singular?”

Let us answer that by asking you a question: Are you old enough to remember the ad jingle that began, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener …”? 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 often pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. The subjunctive is often used in “that,” “if,” and “wish” clauses.

Examples:
She requested that he raise his hand.
If I were rich, I’d sail around the world.
He wishes he were in a position to give his employees raises.

Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the first example above, where a request or wish is being expressed, he raise is correct. In the next two examples, a thought or wish contrary to fact is being expressed; therefore, were, which we normally think of as a plural verb, is used with singular subjects (I, he).

In general, use the past perfect tense when using the subjunctive mood with verbs besides were.

Examples:
I wish I had studied more for the test.
It would be better if you had brought the ice cream in a cooler.

 

Pop Quiz
Select the correct verbs in the following sentences:

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

 

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.
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.

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


35 Comments on The Subjunctive Mood

35 responses to “The Subjunctive Mood”

  1. Kim says:

    The church bulletin bloopers cracked me up. Too funny!

  2. Jane says:

    Glad you enjoyed them, Kim.

    • Carol says:

      Fist of all, thanks Jane’s work, I really understood a lot about grammar. Secondly, could you explain “she requested that he raise his hand” again for me and all the people who have been still confusing the verb tenses in this sentence. Our problems are that why you used “raise”(present tense) after the verb”requested”(past tense),although we’ve already understood the principle of Subject-verb agreement that we should use the plural form rather than the single form.In other words, we can understand that “I wish I were there.” The WISH is present tense and WERE is past tense because “I” want the “be present” action happened in the past but showed not. Now we don’t understand the sentence that”she requested that he raise his hand”. Did you mean that “she” requested in the past that “he” will do “raise” in the future? Thanks a lot.

      • The subjunctive form of the verb raise is used after the verb “requested” because it indicates a desire or wish that had not yet become a reality. She requested that he (should) raise (subjunctive) his hand from now on. For a more detailed analysis, there are many thorough explanations of the subjunctive available online.

  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 wrong 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. Robert K. says:

    Shouldn’t 1 be “If I HAD BEEN stronger, I would have won that race”?

  13. Drew says:

    Which are correct? why?

    If I were you I wouldn’t accept the job.
    I wouldn’t accept the job if I were you.

    If I had time and money I could travel the world.
    I could travel the world if I had time and money.

    • It does not matter whether the dependent clause “if I were you” starts or ends the sentence. Therefore, all of the sentences are grammatically correct. When starting a sentence with a dependent clause, use a comma after it.

      If I were you, I wouldn’t accept the job.
      I wouldn’t accept the job if I were you.
      If I had time and money, I could travel the world.
      I could travel the world if I had time and

  14. Hamdi says:

    Choose:
    He prefers that she ……personally with him.
    speak – speaks – is speaking- should speak

  15. hamdy says:

    How are you?
    Choose
    She got the full marks.She (must be-must have been )clever.

    and thank you very much

  16. dwi says:

    Hello, why is “be” used in these sentences?

    – To you be your way and to me mine.
    – Peace be on you.
    – God be praised.
    – Blessed be the Lord.

    I need your help, please.

    • Your examples all indicate a wishful thought. Therefore, the subjunctive mode is used:
      “Peace be on you” as opposed to the present tense “Peace is on you.”
      “God be praised” as opposed to the present tense “God is praised.”
      “Blessed be the Lord” as opposed to the present tense “Blessed is the Lord.”

  17. lilly says:

    I DONT GET ITTT!!!! please explain

  18. Christine says:

    She requested that he raise his hand.

    Hi. Just a question why it is “raise” rather than “raised” when we use “were” not “are” when we say, “I wish I were there.”

    Thanks.

    • The subjunctive mood pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. Normally, he raise and I were would sound wrong to us. However, because of the verbs “requested” and “wish,” the subjunctive form (he raise and I were) is required.

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