By Allison VanNest of Grammarly.com
Here at Grammarly, there are few rules in the English language that give us a hard time. We get excited about split infinitives, comma splices, and dangling prepositions, but the subjunctive mood gives even dedicated word nerds like us some real difficulty.
English is a moody language even if we don’t always think of it that way. In grammar, a mood doesn’t tell you whether a verb is happy or sad. Instead, it shows a writer’s attitude toward what he or she has written.
Basically, verb tense tells the reader when something happened, while verb mood tells the reader whether it’s a statement, a command, or a hypothetical.
While other Romance languages, such as French and Spanish, have more complicated grammatical moods, English actually has three distinct moods: the indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.
We almost always use the indicative mood, which states a fact or describes the world as it is. The indicative mood is used for both statements and questions, and the familiar rules of grammar apply.
Indicative mood examples:
The cat is licking the butter again.
Marjorie wants three kinds of cake at the reception.
Will you be attending the duke’s soiree?
The imperative mood is less common, but you’ve no doubt encountered it before. This mood is used to issue commands. These commands have the implied subject of “you” and therefore take second-person verbs forms.
Imperative mood examples:
Have a seat.
Take one and pass it down.
Watch out for that blimp!
The subjunctive mood
So what about the subjunctive mood? Though it’s rarely used in English, it’s worth mastering. The subjunctive mood indicates something that’s unlikely happen or a state of wishful thinking.
According to Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, a professor of literature at Carson-Newman University,
Five hundred years ago, English had a highly developed subjunctive mood. However, after the fourteenth century, speakers of English used the subjunctive less frequently. Today, the mood has practically vanished; modern speakers tend to use the conditional forms of ‘could’ and ‘would’ to indicate statements contrary to reality.
Subjunctive mood examples:
If I were in charge, I’d do things differently.
I insist that she practice until she has mastered the aria.
Mary’s mother insisted she be dressed and ready by nine o’clock sharp.
If she were a better employee, she might have better luck holding down a job.
Note the somewhat awkward verb forms above; that’s because the subjunctive takes either the bare infinitive (e.g. “work,” “eat,” “dance”) or, in the case of “to be,” “were” in the past tense and “be” in present or future tense. Confused? Check out this handy chart!
The subjunctive mood requires a decision on the part of the writer; is the event you’re writing about likely to happen or a far-fetched possibility? “If something is likely to happen, use the indicative. If something is hypothetical, or contrary to fact, use the subjunctive,” advise the good folks over at Cliff’s Notes.
The New York Public Library’s Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage breaks down the distinction further: “The words if, as if, or as though do not always signal the subjunctive mood. If the information in such a clause points out a condition that is or was probable or likely, the verb should be in the indicative mood. The indicative tells the reader that the information in the dependent clause could possibly be true”
At The Economist, they point out that the subjunctive mood may well be on its way out. “Pity the poor subjunctive, hanging out with whom as dowdy old contestants on the reality show of English grammar, both wondering which will be voted off by English-speakers first. … The subjunctive may not survive the coming centuries. That might be a shame, but speakers will do what they will do. Or as the subjunctive might say for itself, with a resigned sigh: so be it.”
About the Author: A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than ONE MILLION Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.
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