Verbs that are used to make statements and ask questions are said to be in the indicative mood.
- She arrived late.
- No-one noticed what happened next.
- Why were they here at all?
The subjunctive mood is used in English to express wishes, commands, suggestions and possibilities.
- God saves sinners. (indicative, expressing a fact or belief)
- God save the Queen! (subjunctive, expressing a wish)
- She comes every day. (indicative, expressing a fact)
- I suggest that she come back again tomorrow. (subjunctive, expressing a suggestion)
- I was stuck on the train for four hours. (indicative, expressing a fact)
- I wish I were somewhere else! (subjunctive, expressing a wish)
There is very little difference in form between the subjunctive mood and the indicative mood in English, so little in fact that many English-speakers are not even aware that there is such a thing as a subjunctive in English.
Simple present tense:
In the simple present tense, the subjunctive mood is expressed by the base form of the verb. This means that the main difference between the indicative and the subjunctive is that in the third person singular there is no -s ending in the subjunctive, as can be seen from the examples above:
- God saves (indicative)
- she comes (indicative)
- God save (subjunctive)
- she come (subjunctive)
The present subjunctive of the verb be is be, and the present subjunctive of have is have:
- If that be the case, we shall have to change our plans
- I suggest that they be sacked immediately.
- The doctor recommends she have at least another month off work.
Simple past tense:
The only difference between the indicative and the subjunctive in the simple past tense is the use of were instead of was:
- If I were you, I wouldn’t go.
- He behaves as if he were the king.
In all other cases, the simple past indicative and the past subjunctive are identical, and most grammarians now simply treat all such verbs as indicatives:
- If I had your looks, I’d become a model.
- If you tried harder, you might succeed.
- If this should ever happen, I would not want to survive.
To make a verb in the subjunctive present tense negative, put not in front of it:
- I strongly suggest that you not be late again this week.
- It’s very important that they not be here when she arrives.
- It is vital that the horse not get excited before the race.
To make the subjunctive past tense were negative, put not or -n’t after it, just the same as for the indicative:
- If I weren’t here to help them, they’d never manage on their own.
Uses of the Subjunctive Mood
The subjunctive mood is used in a number of ways to express wishes, commands, suggestions and possibilities.
The subjunctive is used in a number of set phrases and expressions, many of which express wishes or hopes:
- God save the Queen!
- Long live the President!
- Peace be upon him.
- Heaven forbid that I should ever disobey a command.
- Far be it from me to suggest that she was wrong. (= It is not for me to suggest…; I do not want to suggest…)
- Come what may, I will be back next year. (= No matter what happens, …)
- Suffice it to say that she was rather upset. (= All I need to say is that…)
- Be that as it may, we still have to finish the job by next week. (= Even if that is so, …)
- We’re going on a sort of holiday, as it were. (= in a way, but not exactly)
The subjunctive may be used in subordinate clauses following verbs or expressions meaning ‘ask’, ‘insist’, ‘suggest’, ‘recommend’, ‘be important’, etc:
- I am simply asking that you be a little more polite to her.
- It has been suggested that the coffee machine be replaced.
- It’s vital that some progress be made soon.
- It was imperative that everyone arrive at the same time.
- He insisted that she leave immediately.
- I begged that she be allowed to stay.
Other verbs that may be followed by the subjunctive are advise, arrange, decree, demand, desire, direct, instruct, intend, order, plead, pray, prefer, propose, recommend, request, require and urge.
Adjectives that may be followed by the subjunctive are advisable, appropriate, better, crucial, desirable, essential, fitting, important, necessary, preferable, reasonable, right, urgent and vital:
- It’s vital that this Job be finished by next Friday.
- Is it really so important that the Job be finished by then?
Noun expressions with similar meanings can also be followed by subjunctives:
- Someone has made the suggestion that she be given an award for bravery.
- Your proposal that we fund the award is worth considering.
- She left clear instructions that all her money be given to charity when she died.
- Her pleas that her son be released from prison went unheeded.
Other nouns in this category are advice, arrangement, demand, desire, insistence, intention, order, prayer, preference, recommendation, request and requirement.
This use of the subjunctive is rather formal, and is less common in British English than in American English. In less formal speech and writing, it is often better to use other constructions, such as ‘should + verb’ or, especially after an adjective, ‘for + to + verb’:
- He insisted that she should leave immediately.
- It was imperative that everyone should arrive at the same time.
- It is only right that she should be with her husband.
- It was imperative for everyone to arrive at the same time.
- She left instructions for all her money to be given to charity when she died.
- I think it would be advisable for you all to leave now.
Sometimes, an indicative verb is used rather than a subjunctive:
- He is insisting that she leaves immediately.
However, it is not possible to do this in all cases. Therefore, if you want to avoid using the subjunctive, it is safer to do so with should or for… to.
Notice that regardless of the tense of the verb In the main clause, the subjunctive verb in the subordinate clause is always in the present tense:
- I suggest that she go at once.
- I suggested that she go at once.
- I would have suggested that she go at once.
- It is crucial that someone be at the meeting.
- It was crucial that someone be at the meeting.
The past tense subjunctive were may be used after if, us if, as though, even though, unless, suppose and imagine:
- If I were you, I wouldn’t go.
- If the truth were ever to be told, it would cause an incredible scandal.
- I wouldn’t speak to him again even though he were to offer me a million dollars.
- I felt as though I were the only person left on Earth.
- We have never ever been in a pub unless that hotel bar be counted as one.
- Imagine he were to walk into the room right now, what would you say to him?
- Don’t speak to me as if I were a child.
- Supposing I weren’t here, how would you cope?
Were is also used after the verb wish:
- I wish I were her!
These uses of the subjunctive are rather formal, and the indicative mood is often used in less formal contexts:
- I felt as though I was the only person left on Earth.
- I wish I was her!
The subjunctive is used to express doubt or the possibility of not being correct:
- If that be the case, we shall have to elect a new chairman.
- If that were the case, they would have elected a new chairman.
- Whatever be her reasons for leaving, it is sad that she has gone.
This again is a rather formal usage, and less formally the subjunctive may be replaced by the indicative or a construction that uses a modal auxiliary verb:
- If that is the case, we shall have to elect a new chairman.
- Whatever her reasons are for leaving, it is sad that she has gone. OR
- Whatever her reasons may be for leaving,… OR
- Whatever may be her reasons for leaving,…
Since the indicative mood is used to state facts and the subjunctive mood is used to express doubts and possibilities, the use of the indicative, as in ‘If that is the case …’, may also imply greater certainty than the use of the subjunctive, as in ‘If that be the case …’:
- If that is true, we shall have to tell the police. (= I know it is true)
- If that be true, we shall have to tell the police. (= I am not sure whether it is true)
However, since the subjunctive is rarely used in everyday colloquial English, this distinction is rarely made nowadays, and the indicative is used to express doubt as well as certainty. (The subjunctive can, of course, only be used to express doubt.)