Chapter 5-11-3: The Subjunctive Mood
How to Use Subjunctive Moods
The subjunctive mood is a rare feature of English that is used in some particular cases. It has generally almost disappeared from the language. Understanding the basics of the subjunctive mood can help you become a skillful writer and communicate effectively in a formal context.
The subjunctive is used to express certain situations that are not true, but that are expected or imagined. This may include rules, desires, suggestions and hypothetical ideas. Below, we will see how the subjunctive can be used to express necessity/demands, wishes and conditions.
There are two forms of the subjunctive verb. They are the present subjunctive (with the base form) and the past subjunctive (with "were").
The Present Subjunctive - the Base Form - Used for Necessity/Demands
This requires the base form of the verb. It resembles the infinitive form. This verb does not change depending on the subject, which means there is no "s" added for the third person singular. Notice in the negative structure that "not" is placed before the base form verb.
The present subjunctive may often look similar to the present tense, but it is not about the present. It is most commonly used for official rules, instructions and very formal advice, although there are some informal uses that you can read about later.
The structures for necessity and demands are formed using separate clauses connected with "that".
The first clause is an introductory clause:
This is followed by an object clause, which contains the base subjunctive form.
The Past Subjunctive - "were" - Used for Wishes and Conditions
This is when the "be" verb is used in relation to a hypothetical present, using past forms of the verb to imagine and speculate about unreal situations. The past subjunctive is used for conditions and wishes.
Imagined statements about the present are introduced with "[subject] + wish" and an object clause with a verb in a hypothetical form:
"were" (if the verb is "be")
any verb in the past simple (except "be")
would/could + infinitive
Notice that structures with the past simple form or "were" are not about the past. They are imagining a hypothetical reality in a present time.
"Wish" statements containing the past perfect are used to describe hypothetical past events or actions.
Could and would are used for expressing desire to change habits or learn new behaviour. The words "always" or "usually" are not necessary in these sentences, but they have a similar meaning to when "could" and "would" are used in this way.
Notice that would is normally used to express wishes about another person or situation.
Similarly to wishes, conditional sentences are created with a past form of the verb, or the subjunctive "were".
The second Conditional uses the past form or "were" in the if clause to describe an imaginary or impossible situation.
The Third Conditional is formed with the past perfect in the if clause to describe how the past could have been different. The verb be is also used in the past perfect, not in the were form.
Common Set Phrases Containing the Subjunctive
There are a few very common set phrases in English that contain subjunctive verbs.
These phrases are fixed. This means that they have retained their original forms and can be used in everyday language, even though the subjunctive is disappearing from English.
Embedding the Subjunctive in Complex Structures
Note that subjunctive forms do not usually change when embedded in more complex structures such as conditionals.
Be aware that this complexity can create confusion, particularly in the case of past subjunctives, which may be interpreted as referring to the past.
If the subjunctive creates ambiguity or confusion of tenses, it would be better to rephrase the structure to avoid using the subjunctive.
When the Subjunctive is Not Used
Both the present and past subjunctive were once important and commonly used in English. They are now becoming more uncommon.
Subjunctive forms may still be used in some contexts:
rules and regulations
certain specific structures and phrases still in use
Besides these cases, the subjunctive forms are not generally necessary in everyday language. We will now see how it is common to avoid using the subjunctive and express the same meaning in other ways, or when it should not be used at all.
Not using the PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE
The present subjunctive is not often used in everyday English.
It can often be considered too formal or too wordy. There may be other more common ways of expressing the same information, such as with "to infinitives".
Be aware that the present subjunctive carries a tone of authority.
When expressing necessity and demands, not all object clauses contain a subjunctive form. The verb used in the introductory clause will determine if this is possible.
Verbs related to reality and perceptions of reality, such as "know" and "believe" are not used with subjunctive forms.
"Want" is better followed by a "to infinitive".
"Hope" needs to be followed by a present simple verb.
Notice that the same introductory verb can sometimes create a different meaning depending on whether it is followed by a subjunctive or a different verb form in the object clause.
Not using the PAST SUBJUNCTIVE
The past subjunctive may be used in informal, everyday language, or it may increasingly be replaced with a present simple verb. This choice tends to depend on formality and the speaker's age, education and personal preference.