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.
It is essential that each candidate arrive on time.
It is essential that each candidate arrive s on time.
We advise that a candidate not leave a previous position until confirmation is received.
We advise that a candidate does not leave a previous position...
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:
It is not permitted that...
It is expected that...
"it is" + adjective + "that" ...
The school requires that...
We strongly advise that...
subject + demand/require/expect/etc. + "that"...
This is followed by an object clause, which contains the base subjunctive form.
...each player wear a colored tag.
...graduating students stay for the ceremony.
...Jim attend three more classes before obtaining a license.
...subject + base subjunctive form (+ complement)
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
I wish I had more money.
I wished I were taller.
We will wish the trip did not cost so much.
We were wishing the trip were not so expensive.
subject + wish [in any verb tense] + (that) + subject (+ did not) + past form verb ...
subject + wish [in any verb tense] + (that) + subject + "were" (+ not) ...
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.
I wish I had never moved to New York.
Ken wished he had looked in the box before he bought it.
subject + wish + subject + HAD + past participle ...
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.
I wish you would (always) change the toilet paper roll when it's empty.
We wish we could (usually) save some money from every pay.
My cousins wish I would visit them more often.
subject + wish + subject + "would" + infinitive verb ...
Notice that would is normally used to express wishes about another person or situation.
I wish you would...
My cousins wish I would...
I wish I would...
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.
If John felt more pain, he would see a doctor.
If John were in more pain, he would see a doctor.
With any verb:
IF + subject + past verb ..., + subject + would/could + infinitive ...
When the verb is "BE":
IF + subject + were ..., + subject + would/could + infinitive ...
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.
If Wendy had passed her test, she would have become a doctor.
If Wendy had been a more dedicated student, she could have become a doctor.
IF + subject + HAD + past participle ..., + subject + COULD/WOULD + HAVE + past participle ...
Common Set Phrases Containing the Subjunctive
There are a few very common set phrases in English that contain subjunctive verbs.
If I were you, I would call in advance.
If it were up to Josh, he would have painted the doors green.
Suffice (it) to say (that) planning makes a big difference to a project.
Come what may, I am committed to finishing this project.
Heaven forbid our visa is rejected the week before we travel.
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 you had requested that we call in advance, we would have called.
If you wish you owned a pet, this is your opportunity to adopt one.
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".
Present Subjunctive: We advise that passengers remain seated. It is important that aisles not be blocked.
To Infinitive: We advise passengers to remain seated. It is important not to block the aisles.
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.
I know it were not easy to achieve.
I know it is not easy to achieve.
Verbs related to reality and perceptions of reality, such as "know" and "believe" are not used with subjunctive forms.
I want that you come and visit me soon.
I want you to come and visit me soon.
"Want" is better followed by a "to infinitive".
I hope that it not rain tonight.
I hope (that) it doesn't rain tonight.
"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.
Expect + subjunctive:
I expect that Mary call me before she arrives.
= "I have a rule that Mary will call me before she arrives."
Expect + "will":
I expect that Mary will call me before she arrives.
= "I believe that Mary is likely to call me before she arrives."
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.
Subjunctive verb forms: I wish it were easier to buy a house. If I were able to buy one, I could stay in one place longterm.
Present simple verb forms: I wish it was easier to buy a house. If I was able to buy one, I could stay in one place longterm.