What is the subjunctive in English?

2 Answers

The subjunctive mood deals with transmission of things that aren't facts and want to be transmitted as such.


Before diving into what the subjunctive is, let's first talk about language.

Language is a type of communication, that is, it's a method of conveyance of information from one person to another.

Some things that we convey have a verifiable factual aspect to it. For instance, I can say "That tree has green leaves" and everyone who hears the sentence and is looking at the tree and also sees green leaves will nod their heads and think "Yes indeed, that tree has green leaves".

And sometimes we want to express something that will be taken as fact. For instance, I can say "I am happy" and it could very well be that I am expressing in my body language and tone that I am mad as hornets but I want people around me to accept my statement of happiness as factual.

This is called the indicative mood and it deals with the transmission of facts or things we want treated as facts.

Sometimes, however, we want to express something that isn't verifiable and factual and want to present it as such. Perhaps we want to express more of an opinion, or of wishing something were a certain way, or even trying to express a state of mind - something that, if said, others around me wouldn't necessarily readily nod their heads in agreement. For instance, I could say "To have green leaves, I think that tree should have more water."

For this type of expression, we use the subjunctive mood and it deals with transmission of things that aren't facts and want to be transmitted as such.

For example, I could say:

"I am happy." - this is indicative mood, compare to
"To be happy you need love" - subjunctive mood

A common usage of the subjunctive is to add urgency to what is being conveyed (so it's expressing an urgent desire that things be different than they are). For example, take this conversation:

Worried parent: "To pass your exam I insist that you study"
Child: "I do study"

The parent uses the subjunctive - an urgent desire for something to be different than it is. The child uses the indicative - a statement that is being presented as fact.

Depending on the verbs and tone used, it can be hard to differentiate between the indicative and subjunctive (especially given that if no tone is actively being sought for, the indicative is the default).


Jul 13, 2016

The Subjunctive is rarely visible in English anymore.
And the subjunctive and indicative are "Moods", not "Tenses".
Each has its own tenses.


Since many people do not speak English correctly, you don't see the subjunctive much.

If I WERE the Queen of England, I would be very rich.
"were" - past subjunctive, contrary to fact; I am not the Queen of England.
"would" - conditional tense; follows the subjunctive in situations like this - the past subjunctive.

I request that he COME to the meeting.
"come" - present subjunctive, due to an order or wish on the speaker's part.
I want him to come to the meeting. - how we usually say it

In English we don't use the previous sentence structure when speaking:
I order / request that he COME.
We say, "I want him TO COME."

In the present subj., the 3rd person singular of action verbs drops the "s" or "es", and for the past subjunctive the verb "to be" appears as "were".

I order that he WISH upon a star. - Subjunctive mood, Present tense
(not gonna hear this, but it's correct)

Every night, he wishES upon a star. - Indicative Mood - something he ACTUALLY does

If it WERE time, I would be ready. - but it's NOT time (contrary to fact)

When it IS time, I will go. - present tense, indicative mood, not present subjunctive

I wish he WERE more mature. - past subj. (but he isn't - expresses desire)

The subjunctive survives in certain expressions:
Come what MAY.
If that BE virtue, I'll have none of it! - present subj, quasi Shakespeare
"MAY" and "MIGHT" can appear with the subjunctive.

I think the most important thing to remember about the subjunctive is with hypothetical statements like:
If I WERE to become rich . . . (hypothetical)
If s/he WERE to buy a new house . . . (maybe s/he will)
If you WERE to go early, . . . (you might)

NEVER say: "If I WAS ..." if you're wishing or wanting something you don't have - it's a hypothetical, and you need "WERE".

That's one way to show your English smarts.