English Grammar

Subjunctive Mood

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. Verb forms that are used in unreal (contrary-to-fact) conditions, as well as in noun clauses expressing wishes, suggestions, and commands, are said to be in the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood has (1) certain unique forms (they be, she were), (2) present-tense forms that are identical with the past indicative (I had, you wanted), (3) past-tense forms that are identical with the past-perfect indicative (he had told, we had seen), and (4) some forms that are exactly the same as the indicative, tense and all (they stay, you cancel).

English has two different present-subjunctive conjugations. Letís call them present subjunctive I and present subjunctive II:

                                                                   Present Subjunctive I                                                                                                                                    Present Subjunctive II

I be

you (sing.) be

he, she, it be

I play

you play

he, she, it play

we be

you (pl.) be

they be

we play

you play

they play

I were

you were

he, she, it were

I played

you played

he, she, it played

we were

you were

they were

we played

you played

they played

The present subjunctive I of the verb be (I be, you be, etc.) is entirely different from the present indicative (I am, you are, etc.), whereas the present subjunctive I of the verb play differs from the present indicative only in the third person singular (he, she, it play / he, she, it plays). The present subjunctive II of the verb be differs from the past indicative in the first and third person singular (I were / I was; he, she, it were / he, she, it was). The present subjunctive II of play is exactly the same as the past indicative.

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2. The past subjunctive is identical with the past-perfect indicative:

Past Subjunctive

I had been

you had been

he, she, it had been

I had studied

you had studied

he, she, it had studied

we had been

you had been

they had been

we had studied

you had studied

they had studied

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3. The subjunctive mood also has progressive forms such as I be playing; he, she, it were playing; we had been studying.

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4. Of importance as well are the so-called conditional forms with would and would have. I would hurry, you would wonder, and they would listen are present conditional forms, whereas I would have hurried, you would have wondered, and they would have listened are past conditional forms.

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5. Here are three sentences that show how the subjunctive mood is used today:

- She insisted that he take the present. (pres. I)

- I wish I were there. (pres. II)

- He would have fainted if he had been there. (past)


6. What do you think of the sentence If you were home, I would have helped you? Were is a present subjunctive form whereas would have helped is a past conditional; thus, the main clause does not flow logically from the subordinate clause. The sentence should be If you had been home, I would have helped you.

7. How about If they have time, I would help them? Here the if-clause is expressed in the indicative, which makes it a real condition (the verb of an unreal condition would have to be the present subjunctive II had), but the main clause is expressed in the conditional, the way it should be expressed when the subordinate clause is unreal. If they have time, I will help them is a real conditional sentence.

8. Iíll bet you get the next one right. Is I wish she was right right? When one wishes for something (an object, a situation) that is contrary to what is real right now, one should use the present subjunctive II: I wish she were right. If the wish pertains to the future, the conditional is used: She wishes her mother would hurry. The same conditional is used if the main verb is in past time: She wished her mother would hurry. In the latter sentence, would hurry expresses time that is future with respect to a particular point in the past. What do you think of He wished he were there? I hope you like it, because it correctly expresses an unreal wish. In such wishes, the present subjunctive II is used to express the same time as that expressed by the main verb. And if the wish refers to the past, as in I wish I had studied longer or I wished I had studied longer (past with respect to the past-tense wished), the past subjunctive II is needed.

9. The strict mother demands that her son sit up straight at the dinner table. The strict mother demanded that her son sit up straight at the dinner table. You probably approve of the grammar if not the sentiment of each of these sentences, and you are right. The present subjunctive I is used when relating certain commands and suggestions. How does one know this is a subjunctive form? If itís indicative, you should be able to say Her son sit up straight, which sounds very bad. Remember, however, with most verbs the third person singular is the only subjunctive form that differs from its corresponding indicative. Example: The strict mother demands that her children sit up straight at the table. You certainly can say Her children sit up straight, canít you?

10. The subjunctive can express "no matter if . . .": Be it ever so humble, thereís no place like home. Every person, be he black, white, or brown, is her friend.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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