Subjunctive Mood

1. What is the subjunctive mood?

You probably know that verbs have tenses, like past and present, but did you know that verbs can also have moods? Verb moods refer to the attitude in which an action is expressed. For example, an action can be a fact, a command, a possibility, or a wish.

One of these moods is called the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood is used to talk about imaginary situations or situations that haven’t happened yet. The subjunctive mood is not used to describe facts or real events.

We can use the subjunctive to discuss wishes, desires, requests, demands, possibilities, or made up (hypothetical) situations that will probably never happen.

Below, we’ll take a look at how to use the subjunctive mood for a few different purposes.

 

2. Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

Example 1

If my mom were to become the President, it would be illegal to throw dirty clothes on the floor.

  • This sentence describes a hypothetical situation using the subjunctive mood.
  • The sentence starts with the clause “if,” which is followed by the subject “my mom.”
  • The subject is then followed by the verb “were,” which is followed by the infinitive “to become.”
  • This is an example of how to correctly use the subjunctive mood to describe a hypothetical situation.

Example 2

Schools require that each student be on time daily.

  • This example expresses a demand.
  • The sentence is written in the present tense.
  • The subject of the sentence is “student” which is third person singular. We would normally use the verb “is” when talking about a student in the present tense.
  • However, because we are using the subjunctive mood, we have to use the verb “be” instead.
  • This sentence correctly uses the subjunctive mood to express a present tense demand.

Example 3

For her party, Michelle requests that each guest bring an ice cream topping for sundaes.

  • In this sentence, a present tense request is described using the subjunctive mood.
  • The subject of the sentence is “guest,” which is third person singular. Most of the time, we would say “guest brings.”
  • Since this sentence uses the subjunctive mood, we use “bring” instead.
  • This is an example of how to correctly use the subjunctive mood to describe a present tense request.

 

3. Uses of the Subjunctive Mood

a. To describe possibilities or hypothetical situations

The subjunctive mood is most commonly used to talk about situations that might occur but haven’t happened yet (possibilities) or to talk about made up (hypothetical) situations.

In these situations, the subjunctive mood usually (but not always) follows this pattern:

“If” + Subject + “Were” + Infinitive

Remember, an infinitive is the base form of a verb (the plain version of the verb that you would see in the dictionary) with the word “to” in front of it.

After the pattern of “if” + subject + “were” + infinitive is followed, the rest of the sentence is usually written in future tense (showing that the hypothetical situation or possibility would happen in the future).

Example 1:

If I were to get a puppy, I would take great care of it.

  • This example starts with the clause “if” and is followed by the subject “I.”
  • The first verb in the sentence is “were.” We normally think of “were” as a plural verb. However, when talking about hypothetical future situations, we use “were” to indicate the subjunctive, even if the subject is singular.
  • “Were” is followed by the infinitive “to get.”
  • The rest of the sentence indicates that this situation would happen in the future.
  • This is an example of a verb using the subjunctive mood to describe a hypothetical situation.

Example 2:

If I were to win the lottery, I would buy a new house.

  • This sentence also starts with the clause “if” and is followed by the subject “I.”
  • The sentence then includes the verb “were.”
  • “Were” is followed by the infinitive “to win.”
  • The rest of the sentence indicates that winning the lottery would hypothetically occur in the future.
  • This sentence uses the subjunctive mood to describe a hypothetical situation (winning the lottery).

Hypothetical situations using the subjunctive mood don’t always follow this pattern, however.

Example:

If I were you, I would finish my homework first.

  • This sentence does start with the clause “if,” like our other examples, and it is also followed by the subject “I.”
  • It’s also followed by the verb “were.”
  • However, “were” isn’t followed by an infinitive. In this example, it’s followed by the pronoun “you.”
  • This is still an example of using the subjunctive mood to discuss a hypothetical situation.

b. To express a wish, request, or demand

If you want to talk or write about a wish, request, or demand that hasn’t happened yet, you can use the subjunctive mood.

For most verbs in the subjunctive mood, you use the same conjugations (patterns) regularly used according to the tense, number, or subject.

However, there are two main exceptions to this rule.

To use the verb “to be” in the subjunctive mood, use “be” in the present tense and “were” in the past or future tense, no matter what the subject is. (We saw this rule in action in the hypothetical situations above, which were written in the future tense and used “were.”)

Example 1:

I wish he were able to come to the birthday party tomorrow.

  • This sentence expresses a wish using the verb “to be.”
  • The wish refers to a birthday party that is happening in the future.
  • Because we are using the subjunctive mood in the future tense, we have to use the “were” form of “to be.”
  • This is an example of using the subjunctive mood to express a wish.

Example 2:

I would like to request that he be excused from school due to illness.

  • In this example, a parent is requesting to have her sick child excused from school. She uses the verb “to be.”
  • This request is made in the present tense.
  • Because we are using the subjunctive mood in the present tense, we have to use the “be” form of “to be.”
  • This is how to properly use the subjunctive mood to express a present tense request.

Exception 2: For (he or she) only, drop the “s” or “es” at the end of the verb.

Example 1:

The coach requests that each player buy new cleats.

  • This example expresses a present tense request.
  • The subject is each player, which is third person singular.
  • We would normally say “player buys,” but because we are using the subjunctive to express a request, we drop the “s” at the end and use “buy” instead.
  • This sentence correctly uses the subjunctive mood to express a request.

Example 2:

The teacher requires that each student read one book per month.

  • This sentence is also written in the present tense, and it expresses a requirement (or demand.
  • The subject is student, which is third person singular.
  • We would normally say “student reads,” but because we’re using the subjunctive mood, we drop the “s” and use “read” instead.
  • This example correctly uses the subjunctive mood to express a demand.

c. In all other situations

What if you want to use the subjunctive mood, but you don’t need to use “to be” or the present tense third person singular?

In those cases, there’s actually no grammatical difference between a normal sentence (also called indicative) and the subjunctive.

Example:

My teacher requires me to read one book per month.

  • In this example, a present tense request is expressed.
  • The subject is “me,” which is first person singular.
  • If we weren’t using the subjunctive, we would normally say “read” with a first person singular subject.
  • For the subjunctive, we also use the verb “read,” so there’s no grammatical difference between the regular form (indicative) and the subjunctive.
  • Although there’s no obvious grammatical difference, this sentence correctly uses the subjunctive mood to describe a demand.

Remember that you can use the subjunctive mood to talk about anything that hasn’t really happened. This can be something that will probably never happen (a hypothetical situation) or something that may happen in the future (a possibility, wish, request, or demand).

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