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This page is unpolished and very incomplete. It will probably be a very long while before this is complete, so I would suggest reading the Examples page.

The subjunctive mood in English – a guide to usage


In the English language, verbs are used in contexts called moods. These verbal moods are:

There are varying definitions of the subjunctive in English. Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines subjunctive as “in grammar, designating or of that mood of a verb used to express condition, hypothesis, contingency, possibility, etc., rather than to state an actual fact: distinguished from imperative, indicative.”

One important note: many scholars have dismissed the persistence of the subjunctive in its unmarked form, that is, when it is indistinguishable from the indicative. “I wish you were here” and “I wish they were here” are every bit in the subjunctive as “I wish she were here”. Just because “you” and “they” take “were” in both moods does not negate the existence of the subjunctive. Trust that in the earlier days of English, when verbs were distinguished by inflection (e.g., different ending forms), the indicative and subjunctive were quite distinct. A hallmark of the subjunctive is that tenses are often mixed – one says “I wish [present] she were [past? – ah, subjunctive] here” instead of “I wish [present] she is [present indicative, but incorrect] here”.

Learning by examples

Counterfactual statements

If I were you, then I would not do that.
I am not you, however, so I use the subjunctive to express this hypothetical or counterfactual condition. Especially note that the modern usage If I was you is completely incorrect.

If only she were here, then she would speak up.
She is not here, however, so the subjunctive expresses that fact appropriately. Again, If only she was has drifted into modern usage and should be avoided.

We should act as if he were watching.
We doubt that he is watching or know that he is not.

It is as though she were here.
We know she is not here, but it seems so.

Wishful statements

She wishes she were not here.
The modern usage She wishes she was is incorrect.

He wishes he had a hammer.
Without the subjuctive, this would be constructed in the indicative as He wishes he has a hammer, but the indicative is incorrect.

I wish I knew.
This formulation is distinctly different the following indicative statement: I wish I know (which makes no sense). The indicative is inappropriate here.

Conjunctive formulations

Do this now, lest you be harried later.
Lest typically takes the subjunctive.

He keeps the faith, though he face so many trials.
Here, though takes the subjunctive. This sounds very pretentious.

Whether it be true, we shall proceed.

They like all dogs, be they large or small, short or tall, ...

For more information

Finney C E A (1999). Examples of the subjunctive mood in English.

Harsh W (1968). The subjunctive in English (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press).

Hirtle W H (1964). The English present subjunctive. CJL/RCL 9(2): 75-82.

James F (1986). Semantics of the English subjunctive (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, ISBN 0-7748-0255-3).

Khlebnikova I B (1976). The conjunctive mood in English (The Hague: Mouton & Company, ISBN 90-2793-404-5).

Miscellaneous. The English subjunctive: scholarly opinions.

Övergaard G (1995). The mandative subjunctive in American and British English in the 20th century (Uppsala: University of Uppsala, ISBN 91-554-3675-5).

Turner J F (1980). The marked subjunctive in contemporary English. Studia Neophilologica 52: 271-277.

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