The subjunctive mood can be very confusing, and many people don’t use it, or if they do, they may misuse it. Following is some information to (hopefully) create some clarity.
What is the subjunctive?
Subjunctive literally means “serving to join, connecting”. It’s derived from the Latin term modus subiunctivus (“subjective mode”). This, itself, is probably a translation by grammarians of the Greek term hypotaktike enklisis “subordinated”, because the Greek subjunctive mood* is used almost exclusively in subordinate clauses.
* A grammatical mood is a way of speaking that allows people to express their attitude toward what they’re saying. Mood and mode tend to be used interchangeably.
In English and some other languages, subjunctive pertains to a mood or mode of the verb that’s used for conditional or imaginary situations (e.g., If I were a rich man). These are statements that are subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate (e.g., If this be treason…). They’re used to express various states of unreality, such as wishing, emotion, attitude, possibility, judgement, opinion, obligation, or an action that has yet to occur.
By contrast, the indicative mode or mood is used in ordinary statements to represent something as true or real, such as stating a fact or asking a question. Most English sentences use the indicative mood. In fact, the above sentence stem would be more likely to appear as: If this is treason… or If this were treason…. This sounds more like modern English.
The subjunctive mood is used to express something that is not necessarily real, including a wished-for or tentatively assumed condition. Statements covered by this usage definition would express opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire. For example, the following sentence uses the subjunctive mood: She suggested that he learn to dance. As above, this could be re-written as She suggested that he should learn how to dance.
Subjunctives occur most often in subordinate clauses, especially in “that” clauses. Examples: I suggest (that) you be watchful. It’s important that she stand by your side. And again, these might appear as: I suggest (that) you should be watchful. It’s important that she should stand by your side.
In modern English, the subjunctive verb form is usually the same as the indicative form. Therefore, separate subjunctive forms are not very common. Usually, the only distinct form is found in the third person singular of the present tense. In these cases, the -s ending of the indicative is removed (e.g., It’s necessary that he learn to dance, as opposed to the indicative It’s necessary that he learns to dance).
The most serious subjunctive concern is the verb to be. It not only has a distinct present subjunctive—be (e.g., I suggest that he be able to dance), but also has a past subjunctive—were (e.g., If he were able to dance…).
Another case where the present-subjunctive form is distinguished from the indicative is when the verb is negated. For example, compare the subjunctive sentence I recommend that they not enter the dance competition with the indicative form I hope that they do not enter the dance competition.
If all this seems confusing, you’re not alone. As with so many grammar and usage “rules”, those for the subjunctive mood are based on centuries of custom. English has evolved, and still does. But subjunctive usage, like the human appendix, has gotten smaller and, one day, it may go away entirely.
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