Prescriptivist’s Corner: The Subjunctive Case

The Prescriptivist’s Corner is back after a hiatus. This month, we are addressing one of the most misunderstood aspects of English grammar, the subjunctive mood. A mood is a form of a verb that affects the meaning of a sentence. English has three moods, the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive.

The indicative mood is the most common, used to express factual conditions, e.g., God helps us. The imperative is used for commands, e.g., Help us! And the subjunctive governs the hypothetical, wished, proposed, or demanded, e.g., God help us!

The subjunctive mood was common in English until about 1600, when it started falling out of use. It had all but disappeared when, around 1900, the subjunctive began staging a comeback. This comeback was first witnessed in American English, then in Britain and in other forms of English.

It is more often found in formal writing than in regular speech. In ordinary speech, with the exception of some idiomatic constructions, the indicative is usually used. Because of this, there is some question about the viability of the subjunctive’s resurgence. It could be a last hurrah before it fades into grammatical oblivion.

In English, with its lack of inflections, the subjunctive is chiefly seen by the dropping of the s in the third person singular present tense:

Tony wears concrete overshoes. (indicative)

Vinnie suggests that Tony wear concrete overshoes. (subjunctive)

And it is also formed by the use of be and were to replace am/is/are/was:

Vinnie’s consigliore is a fine strategist. (indicative)

Vinnie wishes his consigliore were a fine strategist. (subjunctive)

Other forms of the subjunctive include placing were or be at the head of a clause:

Were Vinnie to increase the payout, his numbers game would be more competitive with the state lottery.

In American English one also can form the subjunctive by placing not before be and following it up by a past participle:

Vinnie knew that Tony was a rat when he insisted that he not be followed to the meet.

The subjunctive is used in the following situations:

Counterfactual conditions. One uses the subjunctive when describing a condition that does not actually exist.

If it weren’t for an infusion of cash from his Vegas operation, Vinnie would have had trouble making his monthly payment to the Godfather.

Wishes. One uses the subjunctive to describe something one hopes to happen.

Vinnie wished that Tony the Rat leave the family feet first.

Demands and suggestions. One uses the subjunctive when describing requests, demands, and suggestions.

Vinnie insisted that the watches be real Rolexes and not knock-offs.

Statements of necessity. One uses the subjunctive to describe actions mandated by a particular situation.

The party going on next door made it necessary that Vinnie use the silencer.

Idiomatic expressions. Certain fossilized expressions are in the subjunctive:

  • be that as it may
  • so be it
  • come what may
  • far be it from me to
  • so help me
  • perish the thought
  • powers that be
  • serve you right
  • suffice it to say
  • woe betide
  • as it were

Sometimes people use the subjunctive when there is no counterfactual or hypothetical condition:

Vinnie asked Tony if he were apprehensive about the meeting.

This is an example of hypercorrection and the indicative should be used instead:

Vinnie asked Tony if he was apprehensive about the meeting.

The concept of the subjunctive is not difficult to grasp and the grammatical forms are fairly simple. Using the subjunctive properly in formal contexts will lend a credibility and gravitas to your writing. But you may want to avoid it in ordinary speech as it can label you as a pedant.

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