Wednesday, September 15

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 12 comments
Dear Editor-on-Call:

We were talking about "what if's" in my writing class last night and everyone would say things like "What if Narnia was real?" Based on my Spanish training, I think that "was" should be a "were," but I'm not as familiar with subjunctive use in English. Am I crazy, or are they wrong?

Wish it were clear

(aka JEM of Can I Get a Side of Reality With That?)

= = =

Dear Wish:

You are absolutely correct that "what if" expressions should use the subjunctive mood in English. Your classmates are, however, demonstrating its diminishing popularity. W. Somerset Maugham said that “The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible.” However, the Random House College Dictionary says, "Although the subjunctive seems to be disappearing from the speech of many, its use is still the mark of the educated speaker." So sorry Maugham-y, baby. Many still use (and defend) the subjunctive mood.

Hypothetical situations
This mood is often used to express a wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred. Whether wished for, feared or suggested, it's NOT the current state of affairs.

Here are a few examples:

Present tense (all subjects take "be", not "am", "is" or "are"; no "s" endings either)
I wish to be proven right.
It's high time she buy a new car.

Past tense (all subjects take "were")
She wished she were invisible.
"If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack / To sit in the synagogue and pray." (From the Fiddler on the Roof song, of course)

Future tense (all subjects take "were to" instead of "will/shall")
If he were to win the lottery, he would move to Rio.
We wish we were to host the party next year.

The "English subjunctive" wiki has a handy chart to help you select the correct verb form, and tons of examples and explanations.

BEWARE that not every "if" clause is discussing a hypothetical situation. In cases where you could swap in the word "whether," the sentence does NOT use subjunctive mood.

He asked me if [whether] I was scared.
She wants to know if [whether] I am going to the prom.

Commands and requests
Subjunctive mood also appears in subordinate clauses, almost always a "that" clause, after verbs of commanding or requesting (jussive subjunctive).

Dad demands that you be here at eight.
We move that the bill be put to a vote.
I suggest that he move to another room.

Stock phrases
There are a number of stock phrases expressing hypotheticals or commands/requests that also use subjunctive mood:

~if need be
~as it were
~if I were you; were I you
~be that as it may
~(God) bless you!
~come what may
~far be it from me
~Heaven forbid
~so be it
~suffice it to say
~peace be with you
~the powers that be
~truth be told
~would that it were

Hope that helped clarify things for you. The Wiki I mentioned above goes into more depth, so swing by there for more information.

What's your opinion of the subjunctive mood? Do you side with Maugham, in wishing it die? Or do you agree with Random House's editors that it's a sign of being educated?

Ask a me an editing question and you could win a too, oh too cool prize! Click HERE for details!


  1. Great post, Laurel! I think I might send my composition classes here to read it. :-)

  2. I never thought about that, but it's a rule to tuck into my never ending learning curve of grammar!

  3. Thank you for posting this. I've always gotten confused about using "were" or "was." I lean toward "were" but then I question myself. Now it's a little clearer. :o)

  4. Oh, goodness. Subjunctive. Such a tricky little thing. Most people don't ever use it correctly. Speaking of, we talked about that issue in my linguistics class - how "wrong" grammar is turning into "right" grammar simply because people use it incorrectly all the time. Of course, that's a descriptive view of it instead of prescriptive, but prescriptive isn't very popular nowadays.

  5. I definitely think it shows education! As native English speakers, we use the tenses and moods without realizing what they are, just reflecting what we were taught.

    Subjunctive is definitely dying. Once, my boss made me change from subjunctive in a document, certain it was wrong. Annoyed me to no end, but such it is.

  6. Thank you for clearing this up! I think I'd like the subjective mood to stick around--does sound classier to me.

  7. This is a great post, Laurel! It clarified a few things I wasn't even aware of.

  8. Shannon: If you do, you might also want to cover some stuff I didn't--such as inverted subjuctive mood sentences like "Were I the leader, I'd have lunch at our meetings."

    Laura: this is one of the more advanced grammar concepts, which I guess is why my follower had questions about it.

    E. Elle: Good to see you again! When in doubt look it up, is my mantra. Hope this boosts your confidence with subjunctive.

    KM: I've wondered if linguists are starting to go the road of lexicographers, whose job IS descripton (of how words are commonly used) rather than prescription. The real question is, just how fluid do we want language to be? If it's too elastic, early-modern literature will be as much an "archaic dialect" to our grandkids as Shakespeare is to us.

  9. Janet: Your example shows WHY it's a mark of education--because this mood appears to run counter normal grammar rules. And I had to deal with a boss like yours. When he'd suggest changes I knew were wrong, I'd usually say "Hmm. Would it be ok if we double check that with our style guide?" When I could point to published expertise, he always backed down. The key is to appear as if you're unsure and simply want to make your superior look good.

    Elle: You're welsome. Even more than classiness, I think the mood is necessary for clarity. Get rid of it and a lot of sentences make less sense.

    Victoria: Glad it was helpful. If you haven't already posted a question yourself, I hope you will.

    Stina: Researching and writing it did for me, too.

  10. I absolutely agree with Random House. I sometimes struggle to maintain the spoken English that I enjoy so much, this was a great deal of fun to read!

  11. It's subjunctive all the way for me. Anything else just sounds harsh in the mouth.

    If only all grammar rules were as clear-cut! ;-b