Getting into the Subjunctive Mood
Which of the following fragments seem grammatically correct to you?
- …I was at school…
- …I were at school…
- …he comes home today…
- …he come home today…
Many people might say that options 1 and 3 are correct, but, in specific contexts within the sentence, all 4 of these options can possibly be correct! Numbers 2 and 4 are examples of the subjunctive in English.
Even native speakers often get the subjunctive wrong, so it’s an important rule to know if you want to sound like a master of English!
Welcome to the Subjunctive
The subjunctive form is used to refer to something other than objective fact. Some languages have a much more prominent subjunctive than English; many subjunctive forms are identical to the normal form in English so they’re hard to spot!
As a result, even many native speakers forget to use the subjunctive in the few places where the forms are different. It can be used to convey a need, a command or request, or something that is hypothetical.
With many hypotheticals in English, you’ll often just use the normal verb form. Usually, you can tell a hypothetical by the introductory word “if.”
- If I get to work late, my boss will get mad.
- If I went to the beach today, I would need flip-flops.
The subjunctive becomes obvious, however, with the verb “to be.” No matter what the subject of the verb is, you will use the form “were.” Normally, “I were” and “he/she/it were” would be incorrect, but they’re necessary in the subjunctive!
- If I were at school right now, I would be in English class rather than watching television.
- If you were my neighbor, we could see each other every day.
- If he were shorter, he wouldn’t have to duck when he comes through the door.
The two examples above can also be rewritten using this “were” form to really emphasize the fact that they are hypothetical. You just add the infinitive form of the verb.
- If I were to get to work late, my boss would get mad.
- If I were to go to the beach to day, I would need flip-flops.
The more natural sounding forms (If I was at school, If he was shorter, If I was to get to work late) are sometimes used by natives speaking very colloquially. However, it is not correct to do so, strictly speaking, unless you were talking about an actual even in the past. (For example: If I was cranky this morning, I apologize; I hadn’t had my coffee yet!)
So what does this all mean in practice?
If you are debating whether your sentence requires a “were” or a “was,” ask yourself these questions:
Is the sentence relating to something that is likely to happen? Is it a statement of fact or a hypothetical situation? For a statement of fact, use the normal indicative form (I was, you were, he/she/it was, etc.). If it’s hypothetical or not likely happen, use the subjunctive (If I were, If you were, If he/she/it were).
The other noticeable use of the subjunctive in English is describing needs, orders, or things of importance. The form of these subjunctives is easy: just use the base infinitive, even for irregular verbs! If only all English rules were this simple!
- She asked that this be done before the weekend.
- You might expect “this is done,” but in the subjunctive you just use the infinitive form “be.”
- It is important that he come home today.
- You might expect “he comes”, but in the subjunctive you just use the infinitive form “come.”
- I insisted that my friend stay for dinner.
- You might expect “my friend stays”, but in the subjunctive you use the infinitive form “stay.”
- George suggested that people show up to the concert a few minutes early.
- You can’t tell that this is a subjunctive form because it looks the same as the indicative, but again it’s just the infinitive form “show up.”
Wait, I still don’t really understand the subjunctive…
Start by tackling the “If” statements. With enough practice and the occasional reminder, this rule should come pretty quickly.
For expressions of need/commands/desires, the subjunctive allows you to be more nuanced regarding the exact nature of the need or command: request, insist, suggest, etc. If the nuance is not as important, many times it feels perfectly natural to rewrite the sentence into a different form that uses a simpler construction.
- She asked him to do this before the weekend.
- He should come home today.
- I told my friend that he should stay for dinner.
- George said that people should show up to the concert a few minutes early.
You should obviously master as many English rules as possible, but having other options is a useful trick as well.
If you can grasp a concept as complicated as the subjunctive, then you have mastered the ability to speak formal English. Well done! Check out our blog on writing professional emails for more tips on formal writing.