The subjunctive mood is one of the English tongue's three moods. This writ is meant to show the subjunctive's uses, both current and historical.
The verbal inflections for the indicative and the subjunctive are the following (call is used as an example):
|Present indicative||Past indicative||Present subjunctive||Past subjunctive|
|I call||I called||I call||I called|
|Thou callest||Thou calledst||Thou call||Thou calledst|
|He calls||He called||He call||He called|
|We call||We called||We call||We called|
|You call||You called||You call||You called|
|They call||They called||They call||They called|
As one may expect, the inflections for be are irregular:
|Present indicative||Past indicative||Present subjunctive||Past subjunctive|
|I am||I was||I be||I were|
|Thou art||Thou wast||Thou be||Thou wert|
|He is||He was||He be||He were|
|We are||We were||We be||We were|
|You are||You were||You be||You were|
|They are||They were||They be||They were|
The subjunctive has compound tenses: the present perfect subjunctive and the past perfect subjunctive. Only the present perfect subjunctive is distinct from the indicative, e.g., it is important that he have finished his work.
Obviously, English verbs are rather plain in their inflections; formerly, English once had a much more distinct inflectional system, but over time, the inflections were simplified and were then merged or lost because of sound changes. Thus, the only places wherein the subjunctive is formally distinct are:
- The second-person singular present
- The third-person singular present
- The present for both numbers and all persons for be
- The past for all persons singular for be (though wert is sometimes used for wast)
Because of the lack of formal distinction between the indicative and the subjunctive in many cases, the subjunctive has been replaced by the indicative in many uses.
For negation, it is now common to put a not before the verb if it is in the present subjunctive, e.g., that he not call (though for be, either way works, e.g., that he be not or that he not be). But in all the other subjunctive tenses, it is negated the usual way, e.g., that he have not broken any laws, if I were not alive, if I did not call. Formerly, not simply needed to be put after the verb, e.g., lest he live not, if I went not.
The present subjunctive refers to present or future time, and historically, the past subjunctive was commonly used if one talked about the past, as it still is in a few other tongues like French. But over time, the past subjunctive has mainly become used in reference to present or future time, which use corresponds to that in German (in which it is called Konjunktiv II). Also, nowadays, in terms of backshift:
- The present subjunctive is often not changed to the past subjunctive, e.g., demanded that he leave (instead of left), insisted that he be (instead of were).
- The past subjunctive is not changed to the past perfect subjunctive, e.g., I said that if I were you, I would not listen to her.
Since the past subjunctive has its own uses that separate it from the present subjunctive, it is more accurate to say that we are dealing with two subjunctives, and it may thus be helpful to think of present subjunctive and past subjunctive as Subjunctive I and Subjunctive II, respectively.
In terms of time, whenever the past subjunctive is used to refer to unreal or hypothetical conditions, it refers not to past time but present time, e.g., if I were you. To refer to past time, the past perfect subjunctive is used instead, e.g., if I had known.
As the subjunctive is the mood of desire, it is not surprising to find the present subjunctive in constructions that look like imperatives. It is used for the first and third persons.
- Suffice it to say.
- Be it resolved.
- Well, sit we down, / And let us hear Bernardo speak of this. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Nowadays, the subjunctive construction is not used; instead, it has been replaced with the imperative construction that uses let, e.g., let us sit down, let them eat cake.
The present subjunctive can be found in wishes expected to be carried out somehow.
- God bless you.
- Long live the king.
- Woe betide you.
- So be it.
- Thy kingdom come.
Nowadays, wishes are made with may.
- May the Force be with you.
- May we never have to deal with that again!
- May you have a safe journey.
- Long may he reign.
The present subjunctive is used in clauses following nouns, adjectives, and verbs of desire.
- I insist that he be rewarded for his work. (verb: insist)
- We ask that the secretary tell us everything that he knows. (verb: ask)
- The king ordered that the witch be executed. (verb: ordered)
- It is important that she leave at once. (adjective: important)
- I thought it best that he be released from jail. (adjective: best)
- My father has accepted our neighbor's request that he make him a drawer. (noun: request)
- I refused to follow the kidnapper's demand that I give him two thousand dollars. (noun: demand)
The difference between the indicative and the subjunctive is apparent with a few of these words:
- I insist that John works at the shop.
- I insist that John work at the shop.
In the former, the speaker is sure that John works at the shop, whereas in the latter, John does not work at the shop (or at least that is what the speaker thinks), but the speaker desires otherwise.
In this kind of construction, the present subjunctive is sometimes replaced with the past subjunctive should.
- I ask that I should be given leave.
- The king has ordered that his guards should investigate the incident at once.
In the expression (about/high) time, both the present and the past subjunctive are used with no difference in meaning.
- It is time that we be honest with everyone.
- It is about time that we headed out.
- It is high time that you cleaned your room.
- And therefore 'tis high time that I were hence. (Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors)
With the verbs see (to it), make sure, ensure, and hope, the subjunctive may be used, but the indicative is generally used nowadays.
- See (to it) that it be done.
- Ensure that it pose no problem for us.
- I have every reason to hope that it turn out well.
The present perfect subjunctive is occasionally used with the same time reference as the present perfect indicative.
- To be eligible for the position, it is important that one have been living here for seven years.
The subjunctive has a few different uses with conditional clauses. The present subjunctive can be used to show that the speaker does not guarantee the truth of the condition, and so the condition is left open.
- If need be, go to the hospital.
- If this be true, then we are doomed.
- Unless he resign, she will remain unsatisfied.
In theory, the indicative is used only if the speaker has no doubt about the truth of the condition.
- If that is true, then he must be questioned at once.
- If that be true, then what shall we do?
Nowadays, however, the indicative has overthrown the subjunctive in this use, whence the indicative (ordinarily used for things believed true by the speaker) appears to be used where the subjunctive is fitter.
The past subjunctive should is sometimes used instead, e.g., if it should rain, if it should be correct.
The past subjunctive is occasionally used to show doubt about past conditions, whereas the past indicative is used to show that the speaker believes that a past incident is true.
- If she was not there, then neither was her lover.
- If ever I were traitor / My name be blotted from the book of life (Shakespeare, Richard II)
That is the theoretical difference, but since the past indicative and the past subjunctive are formally distinct only in be, one may see was used instead.
In purpose clauses, the subjunctive may be found after that and lest.
- Judge not, that ye be not judged. (KJV, Matthew 7:1)
- One must not work too much, lest one's health suffer.
- Lest we forget.
The subjunctive's use with that is now archaic; it is much more usual to use may, might, or should.
- I eat that I may live.
- To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. (KJV, 1 Corinthians 9:22)
- I pray that no misfortune should befall me.
With lest, one may find the aforesaid auxiliaries, but the subjunctive is far commoner.
- Make sure to shut the window, lest smoke come in.
The subjunctive can be used in clauses denoting time. The action in the subordinate clause is thought not to have been realized yet.
- Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. (KJV, Matthew 26:34)
- I shall wait here until the sun rise.
Nowadays, the indicative is used, e.g., before the cock crows, until the sun rises.
Note that come in come next year is a relic of the subjunctive form in this context.
- Come next year (that is, when next year come), things will look different.
The subjunctive can be found in concessive clauses introduced by though and the like. The condition is not assumed to be true.
- Though this be madness, yet there is madness in 't. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
- Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
- Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. (KJV, Job 13:15)
Nowadays, the subjunctive is seldom used with though; to express such meaning, either may or might is used, or the conjunction is replaced with even if (if the condition is not deemed to be true, of course).
Indefinite relative clause
The subjunctive can be found in indefinite relative clauses led by -ever conjunctions.
- Whoever that man be, be careful.
- Be not dismayed, whate'er betide (from a hymn).
- There's not a place, / Howsoever mean it be / But 'tis good enough for thee. (Wordsworth)
Nowadays, one generally sees the indicative or auxiliaries like may used instead, e.g., whoever that man is, whatever may betide.
For whether, the subjunctive is sometimes used, though the indicative is now common.
- Whether it be true or not, there is nothing I can do about it.
- Be he alive, or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
In indirect questions, one may see the subjunctive either in the present or in the past.
- For 'tis a question left us yet to prove, / Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Nowadays, the indicative is used.
The past subjunctive is used in the consequent of conditionals referring to unreal or hypothetical situations. In today's English, the only four verbs used thus are should, would, could, and might.
- I should be greatly surprised if that were true.
- You would have become rich if you had not squandered your money.
- I could go swimming if my legs did not feel sore right now.
- There might have been trouble if you had not stopped him in time.
The simple past subjunctive was once used, but it is now archaic.
- He were no lion, were not Romans hinds. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
The past subjunctive is often used instead of their present indicative forms to soften the statement, which is why these forms are often used in polite requests. There are now only four past subjunctive forms commonly used for softened effect: could, might, would, and should.
- Could I use your pencil? (politer than can I use your pencil?)
- Might I see your passport? (politer than may I see your passport?)
- Would you pass me the salt? (politer than will you pass me the salt?)
- I should like to talk with you. (politer than I want to talk with you, though nowadays, would is used instead of should here)
As for would, because of the past subjunctive's softened effect, it is often used to sound tentative.
- It would seem so, sir.
- It would appear that you are wrong.
- It would be best that we leave him alone.
The past subjunctive were was once common for this purpose, but it is now archaic.
- 'Twere good you let him know. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
In the expression would (rather) that, would is the past subjunctive of will used as a non-auxiliary verb meaning wish, desire; the that-clause is the object of would.
As for should, it is occasionally used in the same way as would above, except that the subject must be of the first person.
- I should imagine that he is rich.
- We should like to congratulate you.
This pertains to the traditional distinction between shall and will, which is nowadays mostly neglected in common speech.
Moreover, should is clearly softer than shall, which originally meant owe and thus betokened obligation. One can see the difference in these two sentences:
- You shall leave these premises at once.
- You should leave these premises at once.
The former sounds incredibly forceful and betokens strong obligation, whereas the latter has a weakened sense of obligation and thus sounds more like a recommendation.
Historically, must was the past indicative and past subjunctive of the Old English verb mōtan, and it is from its use as a past subjunctive that must overtook the original verb and is now seen as its own verb. The same goes for ought, which was historically the past subjunctive of owe.
In such expressions as had better and had rather (had liefer being an archaic variant), the had is truly the past subjunctive of have. That is, in I had better leave, it comes from a sentence that meant something like I would hold it better to leave. Originally, this construction was simply expressed with be and the dative, e.g., me is lief, him were better, that is, it is lief for me, it would be better for him. The use of the past subjunctive of have and the nominative arose in Middle English. Note that better and liefer were historically comparative adjectives, but better and liefer were later apparently felt to be adverbs, whence came expressions like had rather and had sooner (it is not hard to see how saying that one would do one thing before another is a way of showing preference). Also, use of the positive and superlative forms arose later, e.g., had as lief, had best, had liefest.
Variants with would like would rather and would sooner also appeared and later became seen by some such critics as Samuel Johnson as the only correct forms (on the incorrect assumption that had was a corruption of would since both sound the same when contracted as 'd.).
The past subjunctive is mainly used to refer to hypothetical or counterfactual conditions.
- If I were you, I would find an excuse to leave.
- I would tell you if I knew.
- If he had gone to the concert, he would have had a fun time.
- If I were to jump off this cliff, what do you think would happen to me?
- If you had been practicing for the competition, you would not be panicking right now.
- What if Caesar had not been assassinated?
The past subjunctive should is occasionally used for these kinds of conditions, but nowadays, it is mainly used for open conditions, e.g., if I should be late, tell the teacher, if it should rain, I will go back home.
The past subjunctive is generally used with if; it is uncommonly used with unless. Interestingly, unless may have differing meanings depending on the context.
- Don't repeat that horrid noise: nothing could excuse it, unless you were having your throat cut! (Brontë, Wuthering Heights)
- And Joab said, As God liveth, unless thou hadst spoken, surely then in the morning the people had gone up every one from following his brother. (KJV, 2 Samuel 2:27)
It can be seen that in the former sentence (which refers to a hypothetical situation), unless means except if, and the cutting of the addressee's throat clearly does not happen, whereas in the latter (which refers to a past counterfactual), unless means if not, and the addressee spoke at an earlier point.
The past subjunctive is found in clauses expressing the speaker's wish, generally with the expectation that the wish will not come true.
- I wish that I were wrong.
- I wish that I had known what was going on.
- Bob buys a lottery ticket every day, wishing that he won and became rich.
- Your wish that you became rich will never come true.
- If only you had listened to me!
- Would that it were so!
For would rather, the past subjunctive can be used, even if the wish is held to be feasible. Sometimes, the present subjunctive is found. The past perfect subjunctive, however, generally denotes counterfactuality.
- I would rather that he were (or be) held accountable for his misdeeds.
- I would rather that he had not gone out.
The past subjunctive is used with the conjunctions as if and as though, which express manner.
- He acts as if he were a king.
- It looks as though I were sick.
Note that the condition referred to in the subordinate clause is not thought to be true by the speaker.
The indicative is commonly used when as if and as though if the speaker believes the condition to be true. Essentially, the conjunction acts as a synonym of that.
- You look as if you are sick.
- It seems as though it will rain soon.
Verbs of supposition
The past subjunctive can be found with imagine and suppose if the situation described is unreal or hypothetical.
- Suppose that you were a rich man. What would you do, then?
- Imagine that he were willing to listen to you.
In Old English, the subjunctive was used in reported speech, and it is still used so in modern German. It may have originated from a desire to indicate that the speaker does not guarantee the the reported statement's truth, but the subjunctive often was used in contexts wherein no doubt from the speaker was shown.
- Wulfstan sæde þæt he gefore of Hæðum, þæt he wære on Truso on syfan dagum & nihtum, ðæt þæt scip wæs ealne weg yrnende under segle
- Wulfstan said that he went from Hedeby, that he was in Truso seven days and nights, and that the ship was running under full sail all the way.
Note that the first two verbs are in the past subjunctive, but the last verb, wæs, is in the past indicative; it appears that the verb was so far apart from the subject that the writer lost track of the proper grammatical agreement.
Though we no longer shift the original mood of the verb to subjunctive in simple indirect speech as it was shown in the Old English example, sometimes, for conditionals, we use the past subjunctive even if the original mood is indicative.
- I will not like it if Bob is at the ball tonight. (I do not know whether Bob will be at the ball tonight)
- I said that I would not like it if Bob were at the ball tonight.
- I hope that the two will name their child Ethan if it is a boy. (I do not know whether their child will be a boy)
- I hoped that the two would name their child Bob if it were a boy.
- But: If there is no more work to do, I ought to go back home. (I think it to be true that there is no more work left)
- I thought that if there was no more work to do, I ought to go back home. (indicative was is used)
In the examples where were is used, it is not used to show tentativeness or counterfactuality.
There are a few contexts in which the past subjunctive may be found as part of backshift, but they are now rare.
- But the praetor told him, that where the law required two witnesses he would not accept of one, though it were Cato himself. (Joseph Addison, Spectator; original mood subjunctive)
- Sir Oluf questioned the Knight eftsoon / If he were come from heaven down. (Longfellow, The Elected Knight; original mood indicative or subjunctive)
In some aforesaid dependent uses, inversion may be seen with the subjunctive verb and the conjunction (the latter being left out afterwards), and the commonest uses in New English are seen with should, were, and had with conditionals.
- Should you be in any trouble (if you should be in any trouble)
- Were I you (if I were you)
- Had I known (if I had known), had he the motive (if he had the motive)
Note that had can be inverted only if used as an auxiliary or as a normal verb referring to possession.
Sometimes, be used with an adverbial clause headed by whether is found inverted.
- I will hire the best man, be he rich or poor. (whether he be rich or poor)
Other instances of inversion are now poetic or literary, however.
- Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home. (John Howard Payne, Home, Sweet Home)
- Knew I a charm to make him wise, I'd sell my jewels and buy it. (Kipling, Kim)
- But yet, alas, stood I within his grace, / I would prefer him to a better place. (Shakespeare, King Lear)