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The subjunctive mood in English is a clause type used in some contexts which describe non-actual possibilities, e.g. "It's crucial that you be here" and "It's crucial that he arrive early." In English, the subjunctive is syntactic rather than inflectional, since there is no specifically subjunctive verb form. Rather, subjunctive clauses recruit the bare form of the verb which is also used in a variety of other constructions.
- (1) Subjunctive clauses:
- a. It's crucial that he be here by noon
- b. It's vital that he arrive on time
- (2) Imperative:
- a. Be here by noon!
- b. Arrive on time!
- (3) Present Indicative: I always arrive on time.
- (4) Present Indicative:
- a. I am…
- b. She is…
- c. You/we/they are…
Subjunctive clauses most commonly appear as clausal complements of non-veridical operators. The most common use of the English subjunctive is the mandative or jussive subjunctive, which is optionally used in the clausal complements of some predicates whose meanings involve obligation.
- (5) Mandative subjunctive:
- a. I insist that he leave us alone.
- b. We demand that it be done tomorrow.
- c. It's preferable that you not publish the story.
- d. My recommendation is that they not be punished.
The following pair illustrates the semantic contribution of the subjunctive mandative. The subjunctive example unambiguously expresses a desire for a future situation, whereas the non-subjunctive (indicative) example is potentially ambiguous, either (i) expressing a desire to change the addressee's beliefs about the current situation, or (ii) as a "covert mandative", having the same meaning as the subjunctive mandative.
- (6) Subjunctive mandative compared:
- a. Subjunctive mandative: I insist that Andrea be here.
- b. Indicative (whether non-mandative or covert mandative): I insist that Andrea is here.
The subjunctive is thus not the only means of marking an embedded clause as mandative: examples can be ambiguous between mandative and non-mandative interpretations, and dialects vary in their use of the subjunctive. In particular, the subjunctive is more widely used in American English than in British English.[a] (The covert mandative is very unusual in American English.)
The subjunctive is occasionally found in clauses expressing a probable 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 formal, although it is found in some common fixed expressions such as if need be.
Somewhat more common is the use after whether in the exhaustive conditional construction: "He must be tended with the same care, whether he be friend or foe." In both of these uses, it is possible to invert subject and verb and omit the subordinator. Analogous uses are occasionally found after other words, such as unless, until, whoever, wherever:
In most of the above examples a construction with should can be used as an alternative: "I insist that he should leave now" etc. This "should mandative" was the most common kind of mandative at the start of the 20th century, not only in British English but also in American English. However, in American English its use decreased rapidly in the early 20th century and it had become very unusual by the 21st; in British English its use also decreased, but later and not so drastically.
The subjunctive is not generally used after verbs such as hope and expect.
The subjunctive can also be used in clauses with the preposition lest, which generally express a potential adverse event:
- a. I am running faster lest she catch me (i.e., "in order that she not catch me")
- b. I was worried lest she catch me (i.e., "that she might catch me")
Subjunctive clauses can occasionally occur unembedded, 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 formulaic remnants of archaic optative constructions, such as "(God) bless you", "God save the Queen", "heaven forbid", "peace be with you" (any of which can instead start with may: "May God bless you", etc.);[b] "long live…"; "truth be told", "so be it", "suffice it to say", "woe betide…", and more.
Variant terminology and misconceptions
The term "subjunctive" has been extended to other grammatical phenomena in English which do not comprise a natural class. Traditional grammars of English sometimes apply the term to verb forms used in subjunctive clauses, regardless of their other uses. Some traditional grammars refer to non-factual instances of irrealis "were" as "past subjunctives". The term "subjunctive" is sometimes extended further to describe any grammatical reflection of modal remoteness or counterfactuality. For instance, conditionals with a counterfactual or modally remote meaning are sometimes referred to as "subjunctive conditionals", even by those who acknowledge it as a misnomer. In popular discussion of grammar, the subjunctive is sometimes erroneously referred to as a case.  It is also frequently claimed to be dying out, though its use is in fact increasing. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoff Pullum observed that mention of the subjunctive is often used as a status symbol by individuals who know nothing about it.
Virtually none of the things people believe about the subjunctive or its status in English are true. Most purists who witter on about it couldn’t actually pass a test on distinguishing subjunctive from nonsubjunctive clauses to save their sorry asterisks. But then they don’t have to: Merely mentioning the subjunctive approvingly and urging that it be taught is enough to establish one’s credentials as a better class of person.
Old English had a morphological subjunctive, which was lost by the time of Shakespeare. The syntactic subjunctive of Modern English was more widely used in the past than it is today.
Examples of subjunctive uses in archaic modern English:
- I will not let thee go, except [=unless] thou bless me. (King James Bible, Genesis 32:26)
- Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Older forms of modern English also make greater use of subject–auxiliary inversion in subjunctive clauses:
- Should you feel hungry, … (equivalent to If you (should) feel hungry)
- 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 it ever so humble, there's no place like home (from "Home! Sweet Home!"; meaning "even though")
Some examples of this sort survive in common usage as set expressions:
- "come what may"
- "God forbid"
- "so be it"
- "so help me God"
- "be that as it may"
- For more on the increasing use of the mandative subjunctive in British English as influenced by American English, see §3.59 in Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman. ISBN 0-582-51734-6.
- 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.
- Rodney Huddleston. "The verb." Pp. 77–78, 83, 87–88. Chapter 3 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "The verb." Pp. 77, 83. Chapter 3 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "The verb." Pp. 84–85. Chapter 3 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Sylvia Chalker, Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994; ISBN 978-0-19-861242-1), p. 105.
- Rodney Huddleston. "The verb." P. 77. Chapter 3 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "The verb." P. 90. Chapter 3 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman. ISBN 0-582-51734-6.
- Rodney Huddleston. "Content clauses and reported speech." Pp. 995–996. Chapter 11 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "Content clauses and reported speech." Pp. 995–999. Chapter 11 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "Content clauses and reported speech." P. 995. Chapter 11 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Göran Kjellmer, "The revived subjunctive", p. 250; chap. 13 of (Rohdenburg & Schlüter 2009).
- Göran Kjellmer, "The revived subjunctive", p. 246–256; chap. 13 of (Rohdenburg & Schlüter 2009).
- William J. Crawford, "The mandative subjunctive", p. 257–276; chap. 14 of (Rohdenburg & Schlüter 2009).
- Pam Peters, "The survival of the subjunctive: Evidence of its use in Australia and elsewhere," English World-Wide 19 (1998): 87–103. doi:10.1075/eww.19.1.06pet.
- Anita Mittwoch, Rodney Huddleston and Peter Collins. "The clause: Adjuncts." Pp. 745. Chapter 8 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Renaat Declerck, Susan Reed. Conditionals: A Comprehensive Empirical Analysis. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001. ISBN 9783110171440). P. 197.
- Geneva Convention no. I of August 12, 1949, for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field, chapter 2. In The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the use of National Red Cross Societies (Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1950), vol. 1, p. 4.
- Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union speech, 1860.
- George M. Jones, L. E. Horning, and John D. Morrow. A High School English Grammar. Toronto and London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1922. P. 133 (exercise 86, item 11).
- Göran Kjellmer, "The revived subjunctive", p. 247; chap. 13 of (Rohdenburg & Schlüter 2009). Kjellmer cites Gerd Övergaard, The Mandative Subjunctive in American and British English in the 20th Century Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia, 94 (Uppsala: Academiae Upsaliensis, 1995; ISBN 9789155436766).
- Rodney Huddleston. "Content clauses and reported speech." P. 1000. Chapter 11 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "Clause type and illocutionary force." P. 944. Chapter 10 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "The verb." P. 83. Chapter 3 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Rodney Huddleston. "The verb." Pp. 87–88. Chapter 3 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- Pullum, Geoff (9 March 2016). "Being a Subjunctive" (PDF). Chronicle of Higher Education.
- See for instance:
- "Because subjunctive and indicative are the terms used in the philosophical literature on conditionals and because we will refer to that literature in the course of this paper, I have decided to keep these terms in the present discussion... however, it would be wrong to believe that mood choice is a necessary component of the semantic contrast between indicative and subjunctive conditionals." Michela Ippolito. "On the Semantic Composition of Subjunctive Conditionals" (PDF). 2002.
- "The terminology is of course linguistically inept ([since] the morphological marking is one of tense and aspect, not of indicative vs. subjunctive mood), but it is so deeply entrenched that it would be foolish not to use it." Kai von Fintel, "Conditionals" (PDF); chapter 59 of Klaus von Heusinger, Claudia Maienborn and Paul Portner (eds.), Semantics: An international handbook of meaning, vol. 2 (Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 33.2), pp. 1515–1538. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter Mouton. doi:10.1515/9783110255072.1515.
- "the use of past tense to indicate unreality, as is done in English, is common crosslinguistically, and it is a mistake to confuse this correlation of form and function with the subjunctive mood." Paul Portner. Modality. Oxford Surveys in Semantics and Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780199292431.
- Liberman, Mark (July 1, 2004). "Prescriptivism and Ignorance: Together Again". Language Log. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
- Rodney Huddleston. "Content clauses and reported speech." Pp. 999–1000. Chapter 11 of (Huddleston & Pullum 2002).
- The Cambridge history of the English language. Richard M. Hogg, Roger Lass, Norman Francis Blake, Suzanne Romaine, R. W. Burchfield, John Algeo. (2000).
- Merriam-Webster 2002.
- Fowler 2015.
- Fowler, H.W. (2015). Butterfield, Jeremy (ed.). Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-966135-0.CS1 maint: ref duplicates default (link)
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link) CS1 maint: ref duplicates default (link)
- Rohdenburg, Günter; Schlüter, Julia, eds. (2009). One Language, Two Grammars? Differences between British and American English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-87219-5.CS1 maint: ref duplicates default (link)
- Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Penguin. 2002. ISBN 9780877796336.