By Katherine Schwartz
The Subjunctive Mood – What’s That?
Well, first, you may wonder what a mood is at all. As its name suggests, a mood gives a certain undertone or sense to what you’re saying, with just a few small changes to a sentence.
Sounds like a funny idea, but it’s easier to recognize once put into action. You can pretty easily identify “Go to school!” as being in a command form, also known as the imperative mood.
You may not realize your understanding of this command rests on the verb form being correct – “Go”, not “You go”, or “You’re going”. Besides the imperative, there are actually three other moods in English. Today we’ll focus on arguably the most challenging one, the subjunctive.
I wouldn’t do that if I were you. It is important that she be to class on time. He recommends that you read more.
What do these sentences have in common? They are all using the subjunctive.
The key to recognizing a mood is in the verb; here we have some funny-sounding things going on, like “I were” and “she be”. Shouldn’t it be “I was” and “she is”?
Why did we suddenly change the verb conjugation?
Well, when the beginning of a clause begins with something like “It is important that…”, or “It is recommended that…” the subjunctive must follow. That’s just the way it is! It’s a little confusing, and a lot of people just skip setting up sentences in the subjunctive because they think it sounds awkward. The reason it sounds awkward is because they don’t know what to do with the verb – but now you will know! Here are some more examples:
David advises that his sister do her chores. It is crucial that we go to the store and buy pizza rolls. It’s a bad idea that Jessica skip class. It was requested that he submit his paper by Friday.
Maybe he won’t be ready by Friday?
Note that you don’t have to use subjunctive in these types of situations that have a similar meaning:
David advises his sister to do her chores. It is crucial to go to the store and buy pizza rolls.
How is it formed?
You’ve probably caught on by now, but the subjunctive form of a verb is easy to make. Take the infinitive, or just your standard form of the verb (to go, to walk, to talk, to run, etc.) and put it where you normally would. “He goes” turns into “he go”. Similarly, “we go” turns into…”we go”? Yep, it sounds exactly the same. Really, the only time you actually have to think about the verb conjugation is when you are talking about “he” or “she” as the subject.
Of course, there is one exception to forming the subjunctive: to be. For example, my earlier sentence, “It is important that she be to class on time,” is correct. In this case, any subject you use will be “be” – I be, he be, she be, you be, we be, they be! Whew. Okay, so what about the sentence at the beginning that says “I wouldn’t do that if I were you”? There’s no “it is important that…” type of thing going on here, so why doesn’t it say “was” instead of “were”? And why isn’t it “be” like we were just talking about?
The quick answer is, because English is funny that way. To explain it with more confusing grammar words, it’s because we technically have to put it into past subjunctive. Oh no! There’s a past? Good news; it’s only different with “to be”. We use past subjunctive in situations where we say “as if”, “wish”, “suppose”, and “if”.
If I were President, everyone would get a free car.
Free Cars for Everyone!
It’s not as if she were dumb.
If I went to the dance, would you come with me?
He wishes he were in the play with his friends
I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
If I were your boyfriend, I’d never let you go.
Image: Michael Watkins
Why does it matter?
The subjunctive is a great way to demonstrate your fabulous writing skills. Even though you can almost always rearrange a sentence to avoid the subjunctive, it is still a nice tool to understand, especially in formal situations like papers and presentations.
You can also impress everyone with your superior grasp on grammar as you correct Justin Bieber in Boyfriend, and refer to the subjunctive.