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What is the Subjunctive? Definition and Examples

Updated on
August 4, 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 can convey meaning that your words often 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 describe in speech or writing. If you’ve ever written something that began with “If I were . . .,” you’ve written in the subjunctive mood. 

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 express the subjunctive mood by using the bare form of a verb in a finite clause. Often, the verbs be or were are used as linking verbs in sentences written in the subjunctive mood. 

Here are two 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 verb rescue is in its bare form.  

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. 

This is where finite clauses written in the subjunctive mood deviate from other finite clauses. In the subjunctive mood, the verb remains in its bare form, rather than changing to reflect the tense. Here are two examples:

  • Our teacher suggested that we finish our work early. 
  • If the shop were like other shops in town, it would take credit cards.

What about other moods?

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. 

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 the only way the subjunctive differs from other moods. Notice how the first example in this article“If I were a billionaire, I would rescue every stray cat”uses were instead of was. Using were indicates that the situation you’re describing is impossible—or at least, from your perspective, it seems impossible. In contrast, sentences in the conditional mood use was to describe situations that are possible and likely to happen, as in this example:

  • 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 tenses

Past and present subjunctive

The past subjunctive refers to the mood used to describe things you wish were true or hope had happened. This kind of sentence uses the verb were to establish the hypothetical, in addition to sometimes using another verb in its bare form:

  • I wish I were taller. 
  • If she were taller, she would go on all the rides.

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

  • The coach recommended that he stop playing soccer.
  • Given the new map you just bought, 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. 

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. 

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

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 accepted, she would major in chemistry. 
  • He’ll join the band on the condition that he be the backup singer. 

Sentences in the subjunctive mood also 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. 

Here are a few more examples of multi-clause subjunctive sentences, mapped out in table format, with the verbs in bare form in bold:

Main clause 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 ten 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 from detached to hopeful.

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