The Subjunctive Mood

Posted on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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 …”? This sentence and the one above are examples of the subjunctive mood, which refers to a demand or 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:
The professor 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.

(Take care not to confuse the subjunctive mood with the conditional tense—also sometimes referred to as the conditional mood. See Clarifying the Conditional Tense for more information on its more-complex variations and structures.)

 

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 Lydia was/were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If Lydia 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 Mom had gone/went to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.
6. Cameron insists that his caddy carries/carry an umbrella on the golf course.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish Lydia were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If Lydia were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If Mom had gone to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.
6. Cameron insists that his caddy carry an umbrella on the golf course.

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