Grammar: Using the subjunctive mood in English grammar

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Using the subjunctive mood in English grammar

One thing I am often asked about from confused students is the past simple but....when the past simple uses I were instead of I was. Today we are going t be looking at the subjunctive mood, what it is and how it is used.


Firstly, you should know that English verbs have a number of different tenses BUT they also have three moods. These are:

  • indicative - this is the most common and is used to state a fact or show an opinion or indeed when we ask a question. As an example, we can say, "I will go to the shops now", "Do you want to come to the shops with me?"
  • imperative - this is used to show a command or to give a direction or also to make a request. "Go to the shops now!" "Please get me some milk from the shops" When we use this mood, we don;t used the subject of the sentence - it is implied that it is YOU.
  • subjunctive - this expresses wishes, dreams, suggestions - something that isn't real now. For example, "If I were you, I would go to the shops" "If I won the lottery, I would buy a Ferrari"

Forming the Subjunctive Mood

The present subjunctive uses the base form of the verb, it doesn't matter about the subject.

For example, "The teacher recommended that I study harder." "The teacher recommended that he study harder"

The past subjunctive has the same form as the past tense of the verb, The verb to be, however, takes the form were regardless of the number and person of the subject "I wish I were Ruler of the World; If I were rich, I could retire" normally we would say "I was...." as opposed to "I were......" for the subjective/

When the Subjunctive Is Used

Use the past subjunctive in contrary-to-fact clauses that state imaginary or hypothetical conditions (often called conditional statements) and most often the second if-conditional clause - "If I won the lottery, I would buy a Ferrari." The Beyonce song  "If I were a boy" uses this a lot during the song. Have a listen! Such statements usually begin with if (or unless) or follow the verb wish.

For present contrary-to-fact clauses, use the verb's past tense; if the verb is to be, use were. For example, "If I were rich and had a yacht, I would cruise all over the world". "I wish I were wise, rich, and beautiful, but I am stupid, poor, and ugly".

For past contrary-to-fact clauses, use the verb's past perfect form (had + past participle). "If the firm had been better managed, it would not have gone bankrupt." "I would have gotten away with it if I had kept my mouth shut."

Use the present subjunctive in statements that express a suggestion, requirement, or request. These statements use verbs such as ask, insist, urge, require, demand, recommend, and suggest. These verbs often precede a subordinate clause beginning with that, with the clause containing the substance of the request, requirement, or suggestion. (For all subjects, the verb used is the base form.)

An an example: "The doctor insisted that she walk at least a mile a day." "The professor requires that each student write six essays in the course". "John's father demanded that he apologize for burning down the neighbours' house."

I know this may look or sound a lot of work. Just remember these rules

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