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The subjunctive mood in English grammar includes particular verb forms that are used in certain clauses, chiefly dependent clauses, to express necessity, desire, purpose, suggestion and similar ideas, or a counterfactual condition.
In Modern English the subjunctive form of a verb is in many cases the same as a corresponding indicative form, and thus subjunctives are not a very visible grammatical feature of English. For most verbs, the only distinct subjunctive form is found in the third-person singular of the present tense, where the subjunctive lacks the -s ending: It is necessary that he see a doctor (contrasted with the indicative he sees). However, the verb be has not only a distinct present subjunctive (be, as in I suggest that they be removed) but also a past subjunctive were (as in If I were rich, ...).
These two tenses of the subjunctive have no particular connection in meaning with present and past time. Terminology varies; sometimes what is called the present subjunctive here is referred to simply as the subjunctive, and, the form were may be treated just as an alternative irrealis form of was rather than a past subjunctive.
Another case where present subjunctive forms are distinguished from indicatives is when they are negated: compare I recommend they not enter the competition (subjunctive) with I hope they do not enter the competition (indicative).
English has present subjunctive and past subjunctive forms, which can be compared with the corresponding present indicative and past indicative forms (the familiar present and past tense forms of verbs). The distinction between present and past is one of tense; the distinction between indicative and subjunctive is one of mood. Note that these terms are used here merely as names for forms that verbs take; the use of present and past forms is not limited to referring to present and past time. (Sometimes the term subjunctive is used only to refer to what is called here the present subjunctive.)
The present subjunctive is identical to the bare infinitive (and imperative) of the verb in all forms. This means that, for almost all verbs, the present subjunctive differs from the present indicative only in the third-person singular form, which lacks the ending -(e)s in the subjunctive.
- Present indicative: I own, you own, he/she/it owns, we own, they own
- Present subjunctive: (that) I own, (that) you own, (that) he/she/it own, (that) we own, (that) they own
With the verb be, however, the two moods are fully distinguished:
- Present indicative: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are
- Present subjunctive: (that) I be, (that) you be, (that) he/she/it be, (that) we be, (that) they be
Note also the defective verb beware, which lacks indicative forms, but has a present subjunctive: (that) I beware...
The two moods are also fully distinguished when negated. Present subjunctive forms are negated by prepending the word not before them.
- Present indicative: I don't own, you don't own, he/she/it doesn't own...; I am not...
- Present subjunctive: (that) I not own, (that) you not own, (that) he/she/it not own...; (that) I not be...
The past subjunctive exists as a distinct form only for the verb be, which has the form were throughout:
- Past indicative: I was, you were, he/she/it was, we were, they were
- Past subjunctive: (if) I were, (if) you were, (if) he/she/it were, (if) we were, (if) they were
In the past tense there is no difference between the two moods as regards manner of negation: I was not; (if) I were not. Verbs other than be are described as lacking a past subjunctive, or possibly as having a past subjunctive identical in form to the past indicative: (if) I owned; (if) I did not own.
Compound forms, auxiliaries and modals
A compound past subjunctive form is made with were (the past subjunctive of be) followed by a verb's to-infinitive (corresponding to indicative forms like I was to own). For example:
- (if) I were to own, (if) you were to own, (if) he were to own, ...
Another compound past subjunctive form made using were is the subjunctive of the past continuous: (if) he were singing.
A pluperfect subjunctive may be considered to exist; its form (had with past participle) does not differ from the corresponding indicative, but a distinction can be sought in the possibility of inversion: had I sung... (equivalent to if I had sung).
Occasionally a present perfect subjunctive is seen, as in It is important that he have completed two years of Spanish before graduation.
The English modal verbs do not have present subjunctive forms, except for synonyms such as be able to as a subjunctive corresponding to the indicative modal can. However would, should, could and might can in some contexts be regarded as past subjunctives of will, shall, can and may respectively. (They may also be described simply as the past forms of the latter modals, or as modals or auxiliaries in their own right.)
The auxiliary should is used to make another compound form which may be regarded as a subjunctive, and in any case is frequently used as an alternative to the simple present subjunctive. For example:
- With present subjunctive: It's important that he be cured.
- With should: It's important that he should be cured.
The should form can undergo inversion as described below.
Use of the present subjunctive
The main use of the English present subjunctive, called the mandative or jussive subjunctive, occurs in that clauses (declarative content clauses; the word that can sometimes be omitted) expressing a circumstance which is desired, demanded, recommended, necessary, or similar. Such a clause may be dependent on verbs like insist, suggest, demand, prefer, adjectives like necessary, desirable, or nouns like recommendation, necessity; it may be part of the expression in order that... (or some formal uses of so that...); it may also stand independently as the subject of a clause or as a predicative expression.
The form is called the present subjunctive because it resembles the present indicative in form, not because it need refer to the present time. In fact this form can equally well be used in sentences referring to past, future or hypothetical time (the time frame is normally expressed in the verb of the main clause).
- I insist (that) he leave now.
- We asked that it be done yesterday.
- It might be desirable that you not publish the story.
- I support the recommendation that they not be punished.
- I braked in order that the car stay on the road.
- That he appear in court is a necessary condition for his being granted bail.
Note that after some words both indicative and subjunctive are possible, with difference in meaning:
- I insist that he is here (indicative, a forceful assertion of the fact that he is here)
- I insist that he be here (subjunctive, a demand that the condition of his being here be fulfilled)
Notice that the subjunctive is not generally used after verbs such as hope and expect, or after verbs that use a different syntax, such as want (it is not usual to say *I want that he wash up; the typical syntax is I want him to wash up).
Another use of the present subjunctive is in clauses with the conjunction lest, which generally express a potential adverse event:
- I am running faster lest she catch me (i.e. "in order that she not catch me")
- I was worried lest she catch me (i.e. "that she might catch me")
The present subjunctive is occasionally found in clauses expressing a condition, such as If I be found guilty... (more common is am or should be; for more information see English conditional sentences). This usage is mostly old-fashioned or excessively formal, although it is found in some common fixed expressions such as if need be. Perhaps somewhat more common is the use after whether in the sense of "no matter whether": Whether they be friend or foe, we shall give them shelter. In both of these uses it is possible to invert subject and verb and omit the conjunction; see Inversion below. Analogous uses are occasionally found after other conjunctions, such as unless (and possibly until), whoever, wherever, etc.: I shall not do it unless I be instructed; Whoever he be, he shall not go unpunished.
In most of the above examples a form with should can be used as an alternative: I insist that he should leave now etc. This is more common in British English than American English. In some cases, such as after in order that, another alternative is to use may or (especially with past reference) might:
- I am putting your dinner in the oven in order that it (may) keep warm.
- He wrote it in his diary in order that he (might) remember.
A present subjunctive verb form is sometimes found in a main clause, with the force of a wish or a third-person imperative (and such forms can alternatively be analyzed as imperatives). This is most common nowadays in established phrases, such as (God) bless you, God save the Queen, heaven forbid, peace be with you, truth be told, so be it, suffice it to say, long live..., woe betide... It can be found used more broadly in some archaic English. An equivalent construction is that with may and subject-verb inversion: May God bless you etc.
See also Archaic uses below.
Use of the past subjunctive
As already mentioned, the only distinct past subjunctive form in English (i.e. form that differs from the corresponding past indicative) is were, which differs when used with a first- or third-person singular subject (where the indicative form is was). As with the present subjunctive, the name past subjunctive refers to the form of the verb rather than its meaning; it does not have to (and in fact usually does not) refer to past time.
The main use of the past subjunctive form is in counterfactual if clauses (see English conditional sentences: Second conditional):
- If I were a badger, I would choose that color.
- He would let us know if he were planning to arrive late.
Note that the indicative form was can be used equally well in sentences of this type, but were is sometimes preferred especially in more formal English. According to the Random House College Dictionary, "Although the [were] subjunctive seems to be disappearing from the speech of many, its proper use is still a mark of the educated speaker." When were is used, an inverted form without if is possible (see Inversion below); this is not possible with was. A common expression involving were is if I were you.
The same principles of usage apply to the compound past subjunctive form were to..., which appears in "second conditional" condition clauses, usually with hypothetical future reference:
- If she were/was to go... or Were she to go... (equivalent to if she went)
The past subjunctive form may be used similarly to express counterfactual conditions after suppose, as if, as though, unless, etc.
- Suppose that I were there now.
- She looks as though she were going to kill him.
There is also the set expression as it were.
The past subjunctive can also be used in some that clauses expressing a wish contrary to fact or unlikely to be fulfilled (see also Uses of English verb forms: Expressions of wish):
- I wish [that] he were here now.
- If only the door were unlocked.
- I would rather [that] she were released.
As above, was cannot be used instead of were in these examples except in "informal" English conversation. After it's (high) time... the use of the past subjunctive is occasionally found, but the present subjunctive is far more common. The example with would rather can also be cast in the present subjunctive, expressing greater confidence that the action is feasible: I would rather she be released.
See also Archaic uses below.
Distinguishing from past indicative after if
Confusion sometimes arises in the case of if clauses containing an ordinary past indicative was. Compare:
- If he was in class yesterday, he learned it.
- If he were in class today, he would be learning it.
The first if clause contains a simple past indicative, referring to past time (it is not known whether or not the circumstance in fact took place). The second, however, expresses a counterfactual circumstance connected with the present, and therefore contains (or should contain) a past subjunctive.
Since in sentences like the second example were is preferred in formal registers, failure to distinguish between the two types sometimes leads were to be inappropriately substituted for was in sentences like the first. This is an example of hypercorrection.
This hypercorrection of was to were can also occur in cases where if does not express a condition, but serves as an alternative to whether in indirect questions. Some examples of this usage are quite old:
- Johnny asked me if I were afraid. (Barbara in Night of the Living Dead, 1968)
- ... he asked me if I were about to return to London ... (Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 1833)
- He asked me if I were a Priest. (The Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine Vol. 3, December 1824)
As noted in the sections above, some clauses containing subjunctive verb forms, or other constructions that have the function of subjunctives, may exhibit subject–auxiliary inversion (an auxiliary or copular verb changes places with the subject of the clause).
The most common example of this is in condition clauses, where inversion is accompanied by the omission of the conjunction if. This is described in more detail at English conditional sentences: Inversion in condition clauses. The principal constructions are:
- Inversion with should: Should you feel hungry,... (equivalent to If you (should) feel hungry)
- Inversion with were as simple past subjunctive: Were you here,... (equivalent to If you were here,...)
- Inversion with were in compound forms: Were he to shoot,... (equivalent to If he were to shoot, i.e. If he shot)
- Inversion with had in the pluperfect, referring to usually counterfactual conditions in the past: Had he written,... (equivalent to If he had written)
Inversion is also possible in the case of the (rarer) use of the present subjunctive in condition clauses, and in other clauses with somewhat different meaning, where the omitted conjunction would be something like whether, although or even if. These are generally archaic, except for some instances where the meaning of the clause is "no matter whether ... or ... " (second and third examples below).
- Be he called on by God, ... (equivalent to "If he be (i.e. If he is) called on by God, ...")
- Be they friend or foe, ... (equivalent to "(No matter) whether they be friend or foe, ...")
- Be he alive or be he dead (from Jack and the Beanstalk).
- Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home (from "Home! Sweet Home!"; meaning "even if" or "even though")
In some examples, preserved in set expressions and well-known phrases, inversion may take place with non-auxiliary verbs: come what may; come Monday (etc.). (See also Archaic uses below.) There are also imperative-type (jussive) uses such as Long live the King! A more common way of expressing such jussives is with inversion of the auxiliary may: May they always be happy!
Historical subjunctive forms
The first table below shows the present and past subjunctive endings in use at various stages of the development of English: in Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English. Forms which differ from the corresponding indicative are bolded. -Ø denotes zero ending.
|Present tense||Past tense|
|First person||Second person||Third person||First & third person||Second person|
|Early Modern English||-Ø||-Ø||-Ø||-Ø||-d||-d||-d|
For comparison, the corresponding indicative endings are also given:
|Present tense||Past tense|
|First person||Second person||Third person||First & third person||Second person|
|Middle English||-e, -Ø||-st, -est||-th, -s||-e(n)||-d(e)||-d-st||-d-e(n)|
|Early Modern English||-Ø||-est, -st||-s, -th||-Ø||-d||-d-st||-d|
As the tables show, in Early Modern English the past subjunctive was distinguishable from the past indicative not only in the verb to be (as in Modern English), but also in the informal second-person singular (thou form) of all verbs. For example: indicative thou sattest, but subjunctive thou sat. The -(e)st ending was also absent in principle in the present subjunctive, although it was sometimes nonetheless added; for example, thou beëst appears frequently as a present subjunctive in the works of Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries.
Subjunctive verb forms were formerly used more widely in English than they are today. Cases of such usage can be encountered in samples of archaic or pseudo-archaic English, and in certain set expressions that have been preserved in the modern language.
Examples of subjunctive uses in archaic English:
- I will not let thee go, except [=unless] thou bless me. (King James Bible, Genesis 32:26)
- Though he were dead, yet shall he live. (John 11:25)
- Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Examples of set expressions that preserve archaic subjunctive uses:
- until death do us part or until death us do part (a part of certain marriage vows)
- far be it from me
- would that it were
- albeit (a synthesis of all be it, i.e. although it be)
- be it enacted (a common English language enacting clause)
The expression "the powers that be" however does not contain a subjunctive: it is a Biblical quotation from Romans 13:1 where it translates a present participle, using the archaic alternative indicative form "be" for "are".
Some further examples can be found in the sections on usage above.
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartik, Jan (1985). "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language". Longman. ISBN 0-582-51734-6
- Other verbs after which subjunctives may be used include propose, suggest, recommend, move (in the parliamentary sense), demand, ask, mandate, prefer, request, ask, desire, advise, urge, specify, instruct, order, demand, insist, require, mandate, rule, necessitate, suffice, advocate, vote, would rather.
- Other adjectives after which subjunctives may be used include imperative, important, adamant, necessary, preferable, optional, permissible, acceptable, okay, all right, satisfactory, desirable, advisable, sufficient, necessary, mandatory, urgent, vital, crucial, essential, fitting, right, appropriate, better, expedient, legitimate.
- Other nouns after which subjunctives may be used include insistence, proposal, preference, request, desire, advice, suggestion, option, alternative, recommendation, demand, requirement, necessity, imperative, condition, mandate, specification, rule, ruling, edict, instruction, principle, prerequisite, order, qualification, ultimatum, vote, motion.
- Another example: Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. —George Haven Putnam
- An example is America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood (from "America the Beautiful"). Similarly the traditional English text of the Aaronic blessing is cast entirely in the subjunctive, with jussive force: The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make His face to shine upon thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace.
- Stein, Jess, Editor in Chief (1989). Random House College Dictionary, Revised. Random House. p. 1308.
- The Cambridge history of the English language. Richard M. Hogg, Roger Lass, Norman Francis Blake, Suzanne Romaine, R. W. Burchfield, John Algeo. (2000).
- Curme, George O. (1977). A Grammar of the English Language. Verbatim. ISBN 0-930454-01-4 (reprint of 1931 edition from D. C. Heath and Company)
- Chalker, Sylvia (1995). Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860055-0
- Fowler, H. W. (1926). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press.
- Hardie, Ronald G. (1990). English Grammar. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-458349-3
- James, Francis (1986). Semantics of the English Subjunctive. Univ. of British Columbia Press.
- Nesfield, J. C. (1939). Manual of English Grammar and Composition. Macmillan.