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What is the Subjunctive? Definition and Examples

Updated on
June 14, 2022
Grammar
What is the Subjunctive? Definition and Examples

In writing, your tone can convey just as much meaning as your words. In fact, it conveys meaning that your words simply can’t, like how you feel about the topic you’re discussing, or how you think a situation is likely to play out. That’s where grammatical moods, like the subjunctive mood, come into play. 

The subjunctive mood is how you express hypothetical situations and outcomes. It’s the mood used to express wishes, hopes, desires, and any other imagined outcome you might find yourself describing in speech or writing. If you’ve ever written something that began with “If I were . . .,” you’ve written in the subjunctive mood. 

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What is the subjunctive, and how does it work?

The subjunctive isn’t a tense. It’s a mood. It’s that not-quite-concrete wording you use when you’re discussing things you want to happen, hope will happen, or anticipate will happen. Unlike some other languages, English doesn’t have a specific subjunctive verb form. Rather, phrases, clauses, and sentences in the subjunctive mood are expressed by using the bare form of the verb in a finite clause and, when applicable, by using “be” or “were” as the sentence’s linking verb. Here are examples of sentences in the subjunctive mood:

  • If I were a billionaire, I would rescue every stray cat. 
  • I asked that they rescue the cats that enter their property.

The bare form of a verb, also known as its base form, is its infinitive form without the particle “to.” That’s all. In the examples above, the base form of the verb is “rescue.” 

Before we go further into discussing the subjunctive mood, let’s take a step back and talk about grammatical moods as a whole. There are three recognized grammatical moods:

  • Indicative: This mood is used for stating facts. 
    • Ken ate all the cookies. 
  • Imperative: This mood is used for making commands. 
    • Ken, eat the cookies!
  • Subjunctive: This mood is used for expressing desires and hypotheticals. 
    • I ask that you eat these cookies, Ken. 

Sometimes, an indicative sentence can look a lot like a subjunctive one, like in this example: 

  • I hope Ken will eat the cookies. 

Examples like this can be tricky because while it’s describing the speaker’s wish, it’s also stating a concrete fact: The speaker hopes that Ken will eat the cookies. Changing the subject to the third person can make this easier to recognize:

  • She hopes Ken will eat the cookies. 

A finite clause is a clause that contains a verb that expresses the clause’s tense. For example, in the clause “it is snowing,” the verbs “is” and “snowing” communicate that the action is happening in the present tense. In the clause “it was snowing,” the verb “was” indicates that the snowfall happened in the past tense. Another way to communicate this is “it snowed.”

This is where the subjunctive mood deviates from most of the sentences you write. In the subjunctive mood, the verb remains in its bare form, while the clause remains finite but tenseless:

  • Our teacher suggested that we finish our work early. 
  • If the shop is like most shops in town, I assume it takes credit cards.

What about other moods?

You might have heard of other grammatical moods, like the conditional and interrogative moods. These moods exist in English, but unlike the three moods described above, they aren’t morphologically distinct. In other words, they aren’t created through specific word structures. The subjunctive, in contrast, requires that the verb be in its bare form. 

That’s not all the subjunctive mood requires. Notice how the first example above uses “were” instead of “was.” Using “were” indicates that the situation you’re describing is impossible—or at least that from your perspective, it seems impossible. In contrast, use “was” to describe situations that are possible and likely to happen:

  • If I was here earlier, I would have cleaned up. 

This is what separates the subjunctive mood from the conditional mood. With the conditional mood, you’re describing the results that would follow a specific action, if that action were to occur. With the subjunctive mood, you’re expressing the result that would follow an imagined set of circumstances. Not all subjunctive sentences follow this sentence structure, but you’ll find that many do. 

Subjunctive rules

Sentences in the subjunctive mood often, but not always, contain two or more clauses. A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb. Independent clauses can stand on their own as sentences. Dependent clauses can’t. 

Take a look at these multi-clause subjunctive sentences: 

  • I ask that the board consider my proposal.
  • He requests that his sister arrive before the other guests. 

Past and present subjunctive

The past subjunctive refers to the mood used to describe things you wish or hope had happened. With this kind of sentence, use the verb “were”:

  • I wish I were taller. 
  • If she were here, she would run faster than everyone else.

The present subjunctive uses the bare form of a verb to discuss a present or future hypothetical. Here are some examples:

  • The coach recommended that he stop playing soccer.
  • With the new map in hand, I ask that we adjust our trip. 

How to use the subjunctive

In a sentence, the subjunctive can look like other moods, like the conditional or imperative. Any time you use the subjunctive, remember that you’re expressing something that isn’t concrete. If you are expressing a concrete outcome or scenario, your sentence isn’t in the subjunctive mood. Compare these sentences:

Indicative: When I go on vacation, I will go surfing. 

Subjunctive: When I go on vacation, I hope I go surfing. 

Conditional: If I go on vacation, I will go surfing.

Interrogative: When I go on vacation, will I go surfing?

Imperative: When I go on vacation, take me surfing. 

The verb in a subjunctive clause can be a transitive, intransitive, or ditransitive verb. The mood lies with the form of the verb, not the number of objects it takes. Here are examples of subjunctive clauses with different numbers of objects:

Intransitive: If I were trapped, I would escape.

Transitive: When it’s raining, we play board games. 

Ditransitive: When it’s sunny, they play soccer with the other class. 

Subjunctive examples

In the past, the subjunctive mood was more common in English. That’s why you’ll find it in a lot of phrases that feel (and are) old-fashioned: 

  • Be that as it may
  • Heaven forbid
  • Suffice to say
  • God bless you

As we mentioned above, the subjunctive mood uses the bare form of a verb in a finite, tenseless clause. This is true even with irregular verbs, though it’s important to note that when a subjunctive clause involves the verb “to be,” perhaps the most well-known irregular verb in English, it almost always uses it in either of these forms: be or were. Take a look at these examples:

  • If she were to be accepted, I suggest she major in chemistry. 
  • He’ll join the band on the condition that he sing backup vocals. 

Here are a few more examples, mapped out in table format:

Subject    Bare Verb    Dependent Clause
    I     suggest     we leave.
    He     requests     that the team remain at home.
    They     demand     that work stop immediately.
    She     insists     we play video games.

 

Getting the subjunctive mood just right can be challenging, as can working with other moods and components of effective writing in English. To make these components easier, we’ve compiled a list of 10 helpful writing resources for English-language learners. 

Subjunctive FAQs

What is the subjunctive?

The subjunctive mood is the sentence construction used when discussing wishes, hopes, and other hypothetical situations. 

When do you use the subjunctive?

Use the subjunctive mood when describing something that you want to happen, something that you hope will happen, or something that you anticipate or imagine will happen. 

What are some examples of the subjunctive?

  • Suffice to say
  • If I were a boy
  • The coach recommended that he stop playing soccer.

Effective communication involves more than words

A lot goes into crafting an effective message. It needs to use not only the correct grammar but also the right tone for the message and the audience. Grammarly can help you get your tone just right by flagging the tones present in your work and providing suggestions you can use to make any changes you need to make your writing perfectly clear. That includes shifting your tone from static to dynamic, or detached to hopeful. 

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