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The Forgotten Mood Of English:
The Subjunctive, An Investigation
by Mark McGrath

Why the subjunctive? Well, I suppose it all started when I began to learn French. I wanted to understand the subjunctive mood. I thought it strange that English had no such mood to compare, or at least that's what I had been told. Then, partially as a result of one of my teachers, the internet mailing list, and my own personal curiosity, I began to realize that the English subjunctive did indeed exist, albeit almost completely forgotten by non-scholars and certainly not something they taught in school. As I started finding little gems here and there of a no longer regularly used mood, my curiosity and intense interest were piqued. To set down my findings coherently and completely, I have decided to write this paper as I am in the research process. One thing I would like to make clear is that I am certainly not out to write a prescriptive grammar or treaty on correct usage (which I am certainly not qualified to do). I wish only to record more recent colloquial and literary usages and try to at least partially describe and explain them. That said, I hope that you, the reader, find this work of interest.


To study the subjunctive, I must first set down a loose guideline or definition to which to adhere when classifying the subjunctive mood. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) defines it thusly: "adj LL subjunctivus (trans. of Gk hypotaktikos), fr. L subjunctus (past part. of subjungere to subjoin) + -ivus, -ive -- more at SUBJOIN: of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents an attitude toward or concern with a denoted act or state not as fact but as something entertained in thought as contigent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt, desire, will) ..." Similarly, and I will be touching upon this subject as well, it defines subjunctive equivalent as, "n: a verb phrase formed in English with a modal auxiliary (as shall, should, may, might) and functioning in a manner comparable to the subjunctive mood." Besides the WID, I would like to thank H.W. Fowler's "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Second Edition".


There are some verbs and semi-regular phrases in which the subjunctive mood still actually survives in an unidiomatic form which I would consider 'pure,' or at least a bit more true to archaic forms of the language. The subjunctive is chiefly used after verbs of emotion or uncertainty, among which are hope, suggest, wish, want, and doubt, or after subjunctive phrases like it seems that or provided that. In English it is also to be found after such adverbs as if, unlike French (the only language I have to which to compare). Some verbs of this type (i.e. doubt, provide) are borrowed from French, although I doubt the corresponding grammatical forms are. Also to be noted is that where French usually requires the use of the conjunction que (that), modern English freely drops the word that from its subjunctive forms, and all subordinal conjunctive/relative propositions, for that matter. When English verbs form into the subjunctive mood, they can take on certain characteristics. Since the verbal inflection has almost disappeared in modern English save for the third person singular (-s), it is in this person that the subjunctive can be most easily noticed. Unfortunately for our study, a good deal of subjunctive utterances are made in the second person and third person subjunctive phrases sometimes sound a little stilted to the modern speaker. Here are a few examples:
I suggest that he write a letter to his mother.
I will let you go to the party, provided that Martin go with you.

The reason that the subjunctive can be recognized in these instances is the difference from indicative form. Instead of "he writes", "he write", instead of "Martin goes", "Martin go", etc. Nowadays, however, most people find "...provided that Martin goes with you" more natural. The most common subjunctive of this type is to be found in the passive voice. I now give some examples listed by H.W. Fowler:
Public opinion demands that an inquiry be held.
He insists that steps be taken to meet this danger.
He is anxious that the truth be known.

"Be" is one of the two or three (depending on your definition) subjunctive forms of the verb "to be". The other universally recognized one is were, usually used with the verb to wish and the adverb if:
I wish I/you/he/she/it were somewhere else right now.
If he were my son, I'd discipline him severely.

In certain phrases, notably if..., the form usually signifying the preterite (simple past) can be used as a subjunctive form. This is not to say that the form actually signifies the past at all, but that the subjunctive and preterite forms happen to be the same in these cases.
If he heard that he would kill you!
In this case we can distinguish if he heard that, which doesn't signify a specific time at all but rather a proposition outside current reality, from he heard that, which definitely signifies an action in the past. Similarly, where people have dropped the usage if he were as awkward, and instead substituted if he was, the form was is inarguably subjunctive, having nothing to do with the actual past (hence the third form of to be's subjunctive). I submit that in modern English this preterite form, possibly by analogy, is in the process of becoming the actual subjunctive, eliminating the irregularly subjunctive verbs. For example, most people would not say If he go with them, they would say If he went with them. Went is still not signifying a past action, unless in the interrogative form If he went with them, why didn't you? Therefore it is a subjunctive form.

There is another trend of the subjunctive in English that is much less noticeable, because it makes use of the present form of the verb. As English grows more analytical, the use of the present tense is decreasing dramatically in relation to the use of the present participle. If someone inquired where you are going, chances are you would say, "I'm going to the store," rather than, "I go to the store." The present tense is used much more frequently to express a habitual action such as, "I go to that store every Thursday," where one would almost certainly not use the present participle. Exceptions do arise, such as, "Wow! You're in great shape!" "Thanks, I'm going to the gym almost every day now."

In this decay of the present tense we can find the subjunctive still vying for survival. For example, the use of the subjunctive after the verb to bet has completely disappeared from present-day English. However, forms exist as, "I bet he finishes first." Such a construction is obviously subjunctive in that it expresses a possible future action in the present-tense form. In ninety-nine percent of all cases I must concede that the subjunctive form is indistinguishable from the present form and therefore is practically dead (although semantically not so) in these instances, especially when the -s is appended to third person singular verbs.

After verbs which formerly used the subjunctive mood, we often find the 'logically odd' but economical construction of the accusative pronoun (or just regular noun) plus the infinitive. Thus we are saved from saying, "I want that he be good today," instead we use, "I want him to be good today." Alternatively, in the negative sentences like, "I don't want him seeing that girl anymore!" the present participle is sometimes found. When you look at the latter sentence from a logical point of view, which is often futile in English grammar altogether, the subject doesn't really want the "object" (him), but rather wishes that the subject of the subjunctive clause exhibit the characteristic of being good. Perhaps on the model of the predicate nominative one could label this phenomenon the "subject accusative". In a modern language that retains the subjunctive such as French we find "Je veux qu'il soit sage," (I want that he be good/behave), whereas the phrase, "Je le veux être sage," (I want him to be good/behave) is completely absurd. This illustrates the difference between French and English, which has all but lost its subjunctive form yet still feels a subconscious need to convey the emotion in "I want him to be good," instead of losing it completely in the non-subjunctival construction, "I want (that) he's good."

Another usage of the infinitive as subjunctive can be found in phrases such as, "I am to be executed tomorrow." The entire verb is "am to be executed," which is voiced in the passive and signifies an event that will probably take place in the future, but is not yet fact. A sentence like, "He is to give her a tour," could be voiced actively as, "He/One wants/wishes/demands/etc that he give her a tour."

"A Dictionary of Modern English Usage" gives a good list of living idioms using the subjunctive otherwise lost in analogous forms. Here are some, including my own additions:
Manners be hanged!
Come what may,
Be that as it may,
Far be it for me to...
Though all care be exercised... (
So be it.
So say he (or for archaic effect So sayeth he).

A good example taken from my Introduction is the word albeit, certainly of modern currency, which is a contraction of the form although it be. Fowler considers the subjunctive's use in formal motions (as in, I move that Mr. Smith be appointed Chairman) established idiom, and under American influence its scope has been widened to be used after any words of command or desire (several of which have already been exemplified).

With the disappearance of the practical use of the subjunctive from everyday speech come its inevitable, more analytic replacements, should, shall, may, might, had better, and sometimes would.

Well, this is far from complete but I am notorious for not completing stuff. Hope you enjoyed!
And now some links for the fucking hell of it!
Ahhhhhh that was fun.

It was one of those grey winter evenings that always put English in a pensive and somewhat dejected frame of mind, making her feel as though she were very small and insignificant. The way the cold wind battered at the window panes reminded her of how harsh and unforgiving the universe could be, of how, ultimately, she too would die, and it would be as if she were never even born. She sighed, stretched, and sullenly exclaimed, “God help me, I’m in such a subjunctive mood today!”

“It is important, at times like these, that my accomplishments be remembered,” she cautioned herself, trying to boost her self-confidence. After all, if she were not around, so many great works of literature wouldn’t be either, from Shakespeare’s plays to the poetry of Charles Bukowski. If there were some alternate dimension, in which English had never come to be, it would be, literarily, a much poorer world than this one. The future was uncertain, but come what may, she would always remember the thrill of her very own vocabulary and syntax being built into subtle lines and intricate prose, strange plots and bawdy tales, fierce slogans of revolution and humble little nursery rhymes.

But today all that grandeur felt somehow hollow, and she couldn’t help but think of what her life would have been like if she were someone else. What if she were Russian, with flexible syntax and a Slavic soul, keeping Dostoyevsky company on those long cold nights he spent journeying into the heart of man? Or imagine if she were Mandarin Chinese, with that musical tonality, those whispery affricatives, and tens of thousands of vivid characters to illustrate her every word! Sometimes, she even longed for the simple, quiet life she would have had if she were some obscure language of New Guinea, spoken by a single highland tribe, instead of the sprawling global tongue that spawned ideas like ‘cyberspace’ and ‘ethnic cleansing.’

And so it went: despite her efforts to cheer up, she found herself forlornly wishing that she were someone else, anyone else. “I can only hope,” she said to herself, in a soft, sad voice, “that my mood be more indicative tomorrow.”

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