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
I wish I (was, were) able to go to the party, but I have another
If I (was, were) 25 years younger, I would probably dye my hair
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
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
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
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
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
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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