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?”

This type of question is common within English grammar, particularly because it walks the line between the conditional tense and the subjunctive mood.

The difference lies in that the subjunctive mood declares a wish or a supposition that is either impossible or highly unlikely. The subjunctive also appears in statements expressing a wish, demand, suggestion, or recommendation.

To further indicate these contexts, the subjunctive alters proper verb conjugation by dropping the ending s from the third-person singular tense. With the verb to be, the present subjunctive always uses be (e.g., in a statement with a demand) and the past subjunctive always uses were (e.g., in a contrary-to-fact if clause).

Examples
She requested that he lower his asking price. (expressing a wish)
The school requires that Mary get to school on time. (expressing a demand)
If I were rich, I’d sail around the world. (highly unlikely scenario)
“If I were an Oscar Meyer weiner …” (impossibility)
The sergeant ordered that he be given extra time on kitchen patrol. (expressing a demand)

Distinct from the subjunctive, the conditional tense always includes a dependent if clause and conveys a possible scenario with a plausible speculative result.

Examples
If I was a banker, I would know more about money. (I could be a banker if I chose.)
If Angelina runs enough, she will be ready for the marathon. (She can determine her level of preparation.)

In light of what we’ve discussed, we can return to our opening sentence to determine if we should use the subjunctive mood or the conditional tense: If I was/were very lucky, I would get the chance to go.

What is your answer? It probably depends on how plausible—or not—you believe your luck can be.

 

Pop Quiz

Select the correct verbs in the following sentences:

1. If I was/wereSuperman, I could have won that race.
2. Management has required that we be/are at the party this weekend.
3. If she was/weretruly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. Beth has proposed he tries/try a different approach.
5. If he raise/raises his hand, he will be the first one chosen.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were Superman, I would have won that race. (subjunctive: I am not and will never be Superman.)
2. Management has required that we be at the party this weekend. (subjunctive: expression of a demand)
3. If she was truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back. (conditional: She could be your friend, but right now she is not.)
4. Beth has proposed he try a different approach. (subjunctive: expression of a suggestion)
5. If he raises his hand, he will be the first one chosen. (conditional: possible scenario with a plausible speculative result)

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

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4 Comments on The Subjunctive Mood

4 responses to “The Subjunctive Mood”

  1. GEORGE BIGELOW says:

    Observational question.
    If lyricist Sheldon Harnick had flunked English, posterity might have been stuck with…

    If I was a rich man,
    Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum
    All day long I’d biddy biddy bum
    If I was a wealthy man.

    Why do we have were?
    We have WERE because Tevye was subjunctively wishing! (Yes?)
    Also, Sheldon did not schlof (sleep) during English class.

  2. You are correct. Our post If I Would Have vs. If I Had confirms that it is grammatically incorrect to use the conditional perfect in the “if” clause.

  3. You are correct in that the sentence cited is an example of the conditional tense instead of the subjunctive mood. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. We will adjust the article accordingly.

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