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The English subjunctive: scholarly opinions

N.B. This page contains brief excerpts from different scholarly works, some of which may be copyrighted. Inclusion on this page is intended to comply with provisions of “fair use” regarding scholarship and education, according to my understanding of relevant laws and conventions. If you believe me in error, please email me. Any of the entries on this page may at any time be removed.


Baugh (1935)

Baugh AC (1935). A history of the English language (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company).

Section 235, page 409:

There has been some schoolmastering of the language. The substitution of you were for you was in the singular occurs about 1820, and it is I is now often considered a social test where propriety is expected. What was left of the subjunctive mood in occasional use has disappeared except in conditions contrary to fact (if I were you).

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Berk (1999)

Berk LM (1999). English syntax: from word to discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-512353-0).

Pages 149-150:

Subjunctive Mood

Like the term imperative, the term subjunctive refers to a particular verb form. In Old English, special verb forms existed to communicate non-facts, e.g., wants, hopes, and hypothetical situations. The subjunctive is somewhat weak in Modern English, but there are speakers who use it routinely. In many cases, the subjunctive is a form learned in school or through reading, so it is educated speakers who use it most. The modern subjunctive expresses a variety of deontic meanings. [N.B. deontic refers to a sense of duty or obligation, of something which is required or desired.]

Mandative subjunctive. So far we have examined three different ways of issuing directives – modals, semi-auxiliaries, and the imperative.The subjunctive can also be used as a directive. The term mandative derives from the Latin root for mandate, “a command or order”. The mandative subjunctive is a very distinct kind of directive and it always takes the same form.

I suggest [that he leave].

I beg [that he return the money].

I demanded [that she give me her files].

We asked [that Marsha tell the truth].

Beth moved [that the meeting be adjourned].

I insist [that you be quiet].

I require [that term papers be turned in on time].

In each of these sentences, the main verb makes some sort of demand, from very mild (ask/suggest) to very strong (demand/insist). In each case, the direct object of the main verb is a clause (the structure in brackets). Note that when the subject of the clause is third person, its verb does not take third person {-s} and be is in its infinitive form. These atypical verb forms are the vestiges of the Old English subjunctive system. The same meaning can be communicated by a verb in present tense – We insist that Marsha tells the truth or by a modal auxiliary – We insist that Marsha must tell the truth. Technically, however, these are not subjunctive utterances because they lack subjunctive verb forms. All of these sentences are directives, however.[*]

[*] This statement bears clarification, as what Berk says is not wholly correct. Compare two sentences (alternate meanings are in parentheses): In this example, there is a very big difference between tell and tells, partly because insist has two different meanings. Berk errs when she says that the first example (insist that Marsha tells) is a directive – if meant as an indicative statement, then tells is correct; if meant as a directive, then tell is correct, and Berk advocates using a poorly formed sentence. The strict mandative subjunctive (insist that Marsha tell) or the modal auxiliary (insist that Marsha must tell) form should be used (also note that with the verb insist, a gerundial form may be employed: We insist on Marsha telling the truth.).

Volitional subjunctive. Just as there are volitional modals, there are volitional subjunctive constructions. These, too, exploit unusual verb forms – I wish I were a bird; Joseph wishes he were a cowboy. The use of were with first and third singular subjects is also a remnant of the old subjunctive system. I wish I was a bird expresses exactly the same meaning, but technically was is not a subjunctive form. The subjunctive is gradually disappearing in English and even highly educated speakers sometimes use non-subjunctive forms in such utterances.

Formulaic subjunctive. English has a small set of phrases and sayings that are so old that they still contain uniquely marked subjunctive verbs. These utterances are learned as whole pieces, often as part of religious liturgy. The expression God bless you contains a third person subject and an uninflected verb. This sentence is communicating, not a statement of fact, i.e., God blesses you, but rather a wish on the part of the speaker, i.e., I hope that God blesses you. Some remnants of the formulaic subjunctive in Judeo-Christian liturgy are:

The Lord make his face shine upon thee ...

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ...

There are formulaic subjunctives that are less tied to liturgy, but most still have a religious cast.

God save the Queen.

Heaven forbid.

God be with you.

God help him.

Be that as it may.

Long live the King.

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Fowler (1926)

Fowler HW (1926). A dictionary of modern English usage (Oxford).

SUBJUNCTIVES. The word is very variously used in grammar. The subjunctives here to be considered (1) exclude those, often so called, in which the modal effect is given by an auxiliary such as may (that he may do it ; cf. that he do it) let (let it be so ; cf. be it so) or shall (until he shall be dead ; cf. until he be dead ; & (2) include any verb that is understood to be modally different from the indicative but is either indistinguishable from it in form or distinguished otherwise than by an auxiliary ; in “that he learn” it is clear that learn is subjunctive ; in “that we learn” it is not ; in “that we, he, may learn” there is no subjunctive that concerns us in this article ; any verb of the kind that has now been loosely indicated is for our present purpose a subjunctive, whether or not it is more specifically known as imperative (sing we merrily), conditional of the apodosis (it were more seemly) or of the protasis (if it please you), optative (had I but the power !), indirect question (When I ask her if she love me), indefinite future clause (till he die), or by any other such name.

About the subjunctive, so delimited, the important general facts are : (1) that is is moribund except in a few easily specified uses ; (2) that, owing to the capricious influence of the much analysed classical upon the less studied native moods, it probably never would have been possible to draw up a satisfactory table of the English subjunctive uses ; (3) that assuredly no-one will ever find it possible or worth while now that the subjunctive is dying ; (4) that subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.

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Jespersen (1905)

Jespersen O (1905). Growth and structure of the English language (Leipzig: B.G. Tuebner).

Section 206, page 205:

While the number of tenses has been increased, the number of moods has tended to diminish, the subjunctive having now very little vital power left. Most of its forms have become indistinguishable from those of the indicative, but the loss is not a serious one, for the thought is just as clearly expressed in “if he died”, where died may be either indicative or subjunctive, as in “if he were dead”, where the verb has a distinctly subjunctive form.

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Vallins (1956)

Vallins GH (1956). The pattern of English (London: Andre Deutsch Ltd.).

Pages 29-30:

The characteristic Old English subjunctive tense endings were -e (singular) and -en (plural). These, in the ordinary process of the language, were weakened and lost. It follows, then, that the subjunctive differs from the indicative only in those forms where the indicative has inflection – that is, the moribund second person singular and plural, and the third person present singular. Of these the third person present singular is the only one that concerns us here: the subjunctive corresponding with the indicative “he sings”, “he walks” is “(if) he sing”, “(if) he walk”. More important, for syntactical reasons discussed later (pp. 39-40), is the survival of separate subjunctive forms of the verb be: be for all persons, singular and plural, in the present tense, and were for all persons in the past singular.

The older grammarians had strange ideas concerning the nature of this subjunctive inflection. Ben Jonson, for example, evidently thinks of it as a plural. Some nouns, he says, though singular, “require a verb plurall – especially when the verbe is joyned to an adverbe, or conjunction: It is preposterous to execute a man, before he have been condemned”. Joseph Priestley (1761) has a curious note on it:

This form of the conjunctive subjunctive tenses is very little used by some writers of the present age; though our forefathers paid a very strict and scrupulous regard to it. It seems to be used with propriety only when there is implied some doubt or hesitation; since when an event is looked upon as absolutely certain, though in speaking of it we make use of the conjunctive participles, &c. the usual change of terminations is retained: to give a familiar example of this; we should say, in pursuing a person, We shall overtake him though he run; not knowing whether he did run or not; whereas upon seeing him run, we should say, We shall overtake him though he runneth, or runs.

Almost all the irregularities in the construction of any language arise from the ellipsis of some words which were originally inserted in the sentence, and made it regular: let us endeavour to explain this manner of speaking, by tracing out the original elipsis: may we not suppose that the word run in this sentence is in the radical form (which answers to the infinitive mood in other languages) requiring regularly to be preceded by another verb expressing doubt or uncertainty, and the intire sentence to be, We shall overtake him though he should run?

Cobbett has the same idea. He seems to consider it “the infinitive of the verb without any change at all”, the sign (i.e. auxiliary) being understood.

Pages 38-39:

The use of should, may, might, would in main clauses, and in subordinate clauses, especially after if, is bound up with the disappearance of the inflectional subjunctive. In Old English the inflected forms of the verb remained and were regularly used, as in Latin and Modern French, after certain conjunctions where a potential rather than a positive or indicative action was implied in the sense.


Here we have the origin of those compound tenses, made up of the auxiliaries should, may, might, would with the infinitive, which now express, in both main and subordinate clauses, that indeterminate action usually expressed in Old English by the subjunctive forms.

Pages 39-40:

In addition, the true inflected subjunctive (see p. 29) still survives, especially in main clauses of wish or desire, like “God save the King!” But in subordinate clauses, partly owing to the development of the compound “indeterminate” tenses mentioned above, it has almost disappeared.

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