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The subjunctive is a mood used in several languages, including English. In contemporary English it is rarely used except in very formal structures, especially in that-clauses. It may be more frequent in American English than in British English.[1]

Subjunctive forms were undoubtedly used more in the past than in modern English, especially when referring to "unreal" situations, be they desirable or imaginary. These have now mainly been replaced by modal verbs, especially should and would, among other verb forms.

Use[edit | edit source]

that-clauses[edit | edit source]

  • after verbs expressing the importance of something, e.g. suggest, recommend, insist:
    • The chairman recommended that the company diversify into other products.
  • after adjectives conveying the same meaning, such as vital, essential, important:
    • He considered it vital that new business lines be developed over the coming months.

Conditionality[edit | edit source]

The well-known second conditional in English can be construed as a conditional:

  • If knew the answer I would tell you.
  • If I were a rich man I would …." (Note the use of "were" not was.)

Here the verb "know" is in what looks like the past tense, but according to some interpretations it is in the conditional.

The second part of the sentence has a modal verb.

Counterfactual statements[edit | edit source]

Others define such statements as being "counterfactual" and supply examples such as:[2]

  • We should act as if he were watching.
  • It is as though she were here.

To express wishes[edit | edit source]

We also use the subjunctive to express wishes:

  • I wish I knew the answer.
  • (I) wish you were here.

Demanding and insisting[edit | edit source]

Other authorities define the subjunctive in terms of demanding and insisting. Here the subjunctive is simply "be" in all persons and tenses.[3]

  • He insisted that he be informed of any changes.
  • I insist that I be informed of any changes.
  • They are going to insist that they be informed of any changes.

Fossilised statements[edit | edit source]

Subjunctives are also used in certain fixed phrases:

  • God save the Queen!
  • God bless you!
  • Long live the bride and groom!
  • Be that as it may, …
  • …, as it were.
  • …, so be it.

There may be some debate over what the subjunctive is in English as different authorities seem to have different descriptions. In any event English-language teachers will probably only want to discuss it with really advanced students - and perhaps not even then, preferring to save it for heated discussion among colleagues.

There is also the problem that the grammar descriptions used when teaching foreign language students do not always mesh with the grammar taught to, or analysed by, native speakers.[4]

References[edit | edit source]