The "present" subjunctive is the bare form of a verb (that is, a verb with no ending). It does not show agreement with its subject. (Example: "I strongly recommend that he retire.") Two patterns of the present subjunctive are generally recognized:
The only distinctive form of the "past" subjunctive is the word were. It is used with singular subjects in conditional sentences and with the subordinating conjunctions as if and as though. (Example: "I love him as if he were my son.") See Examples and Observations, below.
- "The Subjunctive Mood," by James Thurber
- Base Form of a Verb
- Lexical Modality
- Putative Should
Etymology:From the Latin, "subjoin, bind, subordinate"
Guidelines for Using the Subjunctive
The subjunctive may be used in the following circumstances in formal writing.
- Contrary-to-fact clauses beginning with if:
"If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"
- Contrary-to-fact clauses expressing a wish:
"At that moment, I had the most desperate wish that she were dead."
(Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich in Presumed Innocent, 1990)
- That clauses after verbs such as ask, demand, insist, propose, request, and suggest:
"I demand that he leave at once."
- Statements of necessity:
"It's necessary that she be in the room with you."
- Certain fixed expressions:
as it were, be that as it may be, far be it from me, heaven forbid, if need be, so be it, suffice it to say
Additional Examples and Observations:
- "I wouldn't bring up Paris if I were you. It's poor salesmanship."
(Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca, 1942)
- "Even the dog, an animal used to bizarre surroundings, developed a strange, off-register look, as if he were badly printed in overlapping colors."
(S.J. Perelman, quoted by Roy Blount, Jr., in Alphabet Juice, 2008)
- "Well sir, all I can say is if I were a bell, I'd be ringing!"
(Frank Loesser, "If I Were a Bell." Guys and Dolls, 1950)
- "If music be the food of love, play on."
(William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)
- "The public be damned."
(William Henry Vanderbilt, Oct. 8, 1882)
- "If I see one more shirttail flapping while I'm captain of this ship, woe betide the sailor; woe betide the OOD; and woe betide the morale officer. I kid you not."
(Humphrey Bogart as Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, 1954)
- If there were a death penalty for corporations, Enron may have earned it.
- "In the night he awoke and held her tight as though she were all of life and it was being taken away from him."
(Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, 1940)
- The Were-Subjunctive
"Teachers call this by a formidable word, subjunctive, meaning lacking in reality. What it refers to is actually the Fairy Tale Syndrome. If I were a rich man, could be such a mood. It refers to something that is not possible. If the possibility exists, the sentence would read: If I was a rich man."
(Val Dumond, Grammar for Grownups. HarperCollins, 1993)
"Unlike the mandative subjunctive, the were-subjunctive in counterfactual if-clauses is a recessive feature of standard written English. It is not being replaced by a modal but, instead, by indicative was. Would + be instead of were in counterfactual if-clauses is still largely confined to informal, spoken English. It is meeting with strong prescriptive reaction, especially in the US. One side-effect of this, so to speak, is hypercorrect use of were in non-counterfactuals."
(Geoffrey Leech, Marianne Hundt, Christian Mair, and Nicholas Smith, Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study. Cambridge University Press, 2012)
"As with the misuse of whom instead of who, . . . using the subjunctive wrongly is worse than not using it all, and will make you look pompous and silly."
(David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010)
"The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery as soon as possible."
(Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook, 1949)
- The Lighter Side of Subjunctives
Detective Sergeant Lewis: All that stonework, must take months to do the pointing.
Chief Inspector Morse: You're not a bloody mason, are you?
Detective Sergeant Lewis: No such luck. I might have been a Chief Inspector by now if I was.
Chief Inspector Morse: Were, Lewis, if you were. You'll never get on if you can't master your subjunctives. Keep touching your forelock, we may be back in Oxford before lunch.
Detective Sergeant Lewis: Shouldn't that be might?
(Kevin Whately and John Thaw in "Ghost in the Machine." Inspector Morse, 1987)