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Notes on the Practical Subjunctive

Claudette Reed Upton

A question from a subscriber to the EAC E-mail list alerted me to the fact that the subjunctive mood is no longer being taught, or at least taught well, in basic English grammar courses. When I started doing a little research, I discovered that the alleged demise of the subjunctive is nothing new: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (Merriam-Webster, 1989) points out that since the late 19th century grammarians have been remarking its disappearance. "The 18th-century grammarians had barely discovered the subjunctive, so apparently it was in decline as soon as it was recognized. The historical grammarians show that it has, in fact, been in decline since Old English, when the modal auxiliaries began to take over some of its functions." It has, however, been "preserved like a fossil" in certain phrases, such as "be that as it may," "as it were," and "come what may," as well as in what might be called parliamentary language: "I move that the meeting be adjourned."

Not being a grammarian, a linguist, or a parliamentarian, I tend to approach the subjunctive in a more practical way: as a verb form that expresses what you might call wishful thinking. Here are a few examples.

I wish I (was, were) able to go to the party, but I have another engagement.

If I (was, were) 25 years younger, I would probably dye my hair fuchsia.

She describes the northern landscape as though she (was, were) looking at it through her living-room window, even though she's lived in Florida for three decades.

(Was, were) the US to pay its full share of the operating costs of the United Nations, the organization might have some teeth.

All those sentences properly take "were." They show that the subjunctive is often found after the verb wish, after if, as if, and as though, and at the beginning of a clause expressing something contrary to fact or hypothetical. They illustrate the rule that when a present condition contrary to fact is being discussed, the verb in the subordinate clause should be in the past tense. And finally, they show that the verb to be is particularly sensitive to the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive mood.

To underline that difference, look at these sentences from Edward D. Johnson's Handbook of Good English (Washington Square Press, 1991).

I wish I were rich. (Present subjunctive; desire for something contrary to fact.)

I wouldn't wear these clothes if I were rich. (Present subjunctive; condition contrary to fact.)

If he is rich he will be welcome. (Present indicative; the if clause presents a condition that may be true.)

If he was rich you couldn't tell it by his clothes. (Past indicative; in this case, the verb in the subordinate clause is in the past tense to agree with the past tense of the main verb, "couldn't." To test it, change the sentence to the present tense: If he is rich you can't tell it by his clothes. You can see that the condition may be true, rather than contrary to fact.)

Other verbs follow the same pattern: for present conditions contrary to fact, the past tense of the verb is used in the subordinate clause. In the main clause, you will often find the auxiliary verb could or would, making clear the hypothetical or imaginary nature of the condition.

I wish I swam better. (Present subjunctive; desire for something contrary to fact.)

If you used a dictionary now and then, you wouldn't make a fool of yourself so often. (Present subjunctive; condition contrary to fact.)

Similarly, for expressing past conditions contrary to fact, the verb in the if clause takes the past perfect tense.

The story would have been better if the hero had triumphed in the end. Note that the auxiliary would or could does not belong in the if clause of a conditional statement-that constitutes overkill. I would have come if I would have heard you were ill is not idiomatic English.

The subjunctive mood also is used to express a requirement, a suggestion, or a demand. In this case, however, rather than using was or were, we use be (see the example of parliamentary language above). Similarly, if a verb other than [to] be appears in the subordinate clause, it will also be in the infinitive form, though the to is understood.

The child's mother demanded that he be excused from gym class.

Police procedure requires that the suspect be "Mirandized."

I insist that my sick cat be seen to immediately.

Maria's father suggested that she work only part-time.

Patricia T. O'Connor, an editor at the New York Times Book Review and author of the delightful grammar book Woe Is I (Grosset/Putnam, 1996), suggests that if you have doubts about using that construction because it sounds unnatural to your ear, "imagine an unspoken should" in front of the verb.

I think it is safe to say that most native speakers of English-except possibly those born since about 1975, when the subjunctive apparently disappeared from high school grammar syllabi - use the subjunctive easily and naturally in speaking. If the proper use of the subjunctive is not included in grammar courses, however, it will gradually disappear from both spoken and written English. I, for one, would mourn the loss of a form that adds such richness and texture to the written language.


Claudette Reed Upton has been a professional editor since 1976 and has taught editing courses in Simon Fraser University's Writing and Publishing Program as well as through the Editors' Association of Canada and other professional organizations. An honorary life member of EAC, she is now freelancing from her home on the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac. An earlier, shorter version of this article was published in West Coast Editor (October 1999), newsletter of the B.C. branch of the Editors' Association of Canada.

Published in Sources, Number 47, Winter 2001.

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