Subjunctive Mood

Introduction

The subjunctive mood is a grammatical category used to express potential, hypothetical or imaginary situations, as opposed to the more commonly used indicative mood, which indicates things that are certain and factual. The subjunctive in English might be confusing at times, but is actually not that hard. All it takes to master it is to be in the right mood.

In English, the subjunctive mood is expressed by the bare form of a verb. Most of the times it is identical to the first-person form, with the exception of the verb be, which does not change to am/is/are. Subjunctive verbs always look the same, and do not change according to the subject's person. Often times we see the subjunctive mood in clauses which start after the conjunction that.

Examples:

It is important that you return home straight after school. (not "will return")

I demand that he be at my birthday party. (not "that he will be")

One of the most common types of subjunctive is the mandative subjunctive. It is used to show one's will (e.g. I demand that my clothes be ironed) or obligation (e.g. He needs that we all be quiet):

Examples:

My mother insists that we all dine together. (not "that we will all dine together")

I command that he clean my room. (not "that he cleans my room")

He required that I practice more before I play with them. (not "that I practiced more)"

I suggest that she think it over. (not "that she thinks it over")

In some cases, the usage of the subjunctive mood is mandatory: some verbs (such as recommend, suggest, demand, require, ask, propose, etc.) require a subjunctive clause, i.e. they typically open a sentence which has a subjunctive verb.

Examples:

I request that she sing a song for me.

I request that she sings a song for me.

However, in many cases, both the subjunctive and indicative moods can be used to create different meanings. When using the subjunctive, it has the meaning of a possible situation that has not yet happened; When using the indicative, it has the meaning of a factual situation that did happen:

Examples:

It is important that the doctor inspect your arm. (subjunctive, meaning: the doctor is not yet inspecting your arm, but he should do so)

It is important that the doctor inspects your arm. (indicative, meaning: at the moment the doctor is inspecting your arm, which is important)

Past Subjunctive

Other forms of the subjunctive mood in English do not use the "regular" subjunctive verb, i.e. the bare subjunctive. Rather, we use the past form of the subjunctive. Here too, we have a structure used in specific cases: the subjunctive conditional and wish sentences.

Subjunctive Conditional

The subjunctive or counterfactual conditional is a sentence structure which is used to express unreal things and situations, i.e. things that did not happen. For this reason, sometimes it is considered a form of the subjunctive mood. In this case, we use a verb in the past and the verb would, which is the subjunctive form of the verb will, and a clause with a verb in the past:

Examples:

If you saw it, you would agree with me. (meaning: you do not agree)

He would never say those things if he knew the truth. (meaning: he does not know the truth)

Here too, the verb be comes in an irregular form. It always appears as were, not only in the second person and third person plural:

Examples:

I would not do it if I were you. (meaning: I am not you)

It would be so much better if Jane were here with us. (meaning: Jane is not here with us)

Wish Sentences

The past subjunctive form is also used when forming wish sentences. Wish sentences use the verb wish to express a desire for something that is impossible. For this reason, it uses the past subjunctive:

Examples:

I wish I understood how the subjunctive mood works!

I wish I will understand how the subjunctive mood works!

It should be noted that in wish sentences, we also use the verb were instead of was:

Examples:

I wish my house were bigger!

I wish my house will be bigger!

I wish my house was bigger!

We use the construction wish + would to talk about things we want to happen in the future. While the wish + past refers to unreal and impossible situation, the following is used when referring to possible situation:

Examples:

I wish this show would end soon.

I wish the band wouldn't play so loud

I wish my meal would be prepared.

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