The Subjunctive Mood

The Subjunctive Mood

The English subjunctive occurs in two forms: the present subjunctive and the past subjunctive. The present subjunctive is derived from the infinitive of a verb and is in the same form for all persons. No distinctions are made between regular and irregular verbs. For example:

  to be to have to go to see to like
I be have go see like
You (sing.) be have go see like
he/ she/ it be have go see like
we be have go see like
You (pl.) be have go see like
they be have go see like

The past subjunctive is derived from the past tense of a verb. In the case of the verb to be, only the plural form (were) is used in the past subjunctive:

  to be to have to go to see to like
I were had went saw liked
You (sing.) were had went saw liked
he/ she/ it were had went saw liked
we were had went saw liked
You (pl.) were had went saw liked
they were had went saw liked

Another form of the past subjunctive is the combination of the auxiliary would and an infinitive:

  to be to go to like
I would be would go would like
You (sing.) would be would go would like
he/ she/ it would be would be would like
we would be would be would like
You (pl.) would be would be would like
they would be would be would like

Use of the Present Subjunctive

The present subjunctive is used in a clause that follows a phrase that states that something is necessary or important:

  • It is necessary that Ms. Wade be transferred to another department.
  • We regard it as important that he have full access to the documents.

Other statements that are similar in meaning to those illustrated above can also introduce a present subjunctive clause, such as:

 

  • It is imperative.
  • It is vital.
  • I believe it is urgent.
    .
  • We consider it a necessity.
  •  It is crucial.
  •  It is essential.

The present subjunctive is also used to describe the action of a verb in a clause that follows statements that contain the verbs ask, command, demand, insist, propose, recommend, request, and suggest:

  • My lawyer asked that juror two be excused.
  • I insisted that Mr. Drake come to the meeting on time today.
  • No one suggested that she move out of the apartment tomorrow.

Notice that the present subjunctive infers that the action of the verb in these sentences is taking place in either the present or the future:

  • The king commanded that his warriors be ready for war today.
  • I recommend you borrow the money sometime next month.

The conjunction “that”, which combines the introductory clause with the present subjunctive clause, is usually optional:

  • John made the request that his idea be discussed thoroughly.
  • John made the request his idea be discussed thoroughly.

Using the Past Subjunctive

The verb that follows a wish clause is expressed in the past subjunctive. However, the meaning is inferred to be in the present tense. The conjunction that is optional in combining a wish clause with a past subjunctive clause:

  • I wish my son were back from Afghanistan. (now, in the present)
  • Mother wishes that Tina came by for dinner more often. (now, in the present)

If the verb wish is in a form of the past tense, the past subjunctive verb suggests the past tense:

  •  Mother wished that Tina came by for dinner more often. (in the past)
  • I had always wished you knew how much I loved you. (in the past)

Use the past subjunctive in clauses that are introduced by if and as if. If a single verb is used in the non-if clause, the past subjunctive would is used with the accompanying verb in infinitive form:

  • If Mary studied more, she would be a great scholar.
  • I wouldn’t be so confident if I were you.
  • My brother acted as if he played basketball like a superstar.
  • The visiting prince spoke as if he were one of the common people.

When you form an imperative sentence with suppose, the statement that follows is in the past subjunctive with would + an infinitive:

  • Suppose your mother saw you right now. You would be very embarrassed.
  • Suppose Tom asked you to the dance. Would you really go out with him?

A verb conjugated in a perfect tense (have + past participle) suggests that the action of the verb is in the past tense:

  • Laura wishes she had been invited to the wedding. (Invitations were sent in the past.)
  • He wished he had had better luck in Las Vegas. (He visited Las Vegas in the past.)

This occurs with if clauses as well:

  • If only there had been a way to help her.
  • If I had seen the pickpocket, I would have reported him to the police.
  • Jim would have changed the tire if he had had a jack.

 
Note that would is still used in the non-if clause when the verb is in a present perfect-tense form (would have changed).
If clauses are used to set a condition. The accompanying clause states the result that would occur if the condition were met. For example:

Condition Result
If Jean were here, she would know what to do.
If Jean had been here she would have known what to do.

 
This use of would in a clause that states a result is also used when other auxiliaries are added to the clause. For example:

  • If Jean had to work this evening, she would have to miss the party.
  • If you really wanted to be a pianist, you would want to practice more.

The inference of the present or the past tense occurs respectively when you use would + an infinitive for the present and would + have + a past participle for the past.
If you spoke German, you would be able to understand Grandfather.
If you had learned German, you would have been able to understand Grandfather.
When the auxiliary can is used in the clause that sets the condition, the auxiliary is in the past subjunctive (could). The accompanying verb is in its infinitive form for the present-tense meaning or formed as have + a past participle for the past-tense meaning. If the clause that states the result contains the auxiliary could, would is not used. Let’s look at some examples:

  • If Bill could speak French, he would visit Paris.
  • If Bill spoke French, he could visit Paris.

 

  • If Mr. Brown could have remembered what time the train departed, he wouldn’t have missed it.
  • If Mr. Brown had remembered what time the train departed, he could have taken it home.

When have and a past participle follow certain auxiliaries in the past subjunctive, a special meaning is derived. This structure suggests that the action of the verb is imaginary, a desired outcome, or merely a possibility. These auxiliaries are could have, might have, must have, ought to have, and should have. Let’s look at some example sentences:

  • I could have been a famous astronaut. (imaginary)
  • Jim might have become a dentist. (a possibility)
  • Dad must have missed the train again. (a possibility)
  • You ought to have followed the directions. (desired outcome)
  • Martin should have married Barbara instead. (desired outcome)

In many cases, the same phrase can be used with any of the auxiliaries:

  • It could have been a wonderful vacation.
  • It might have been a wonderful vacation.
  • It ought to have been a wonderful vacation.
  • It must have been a wonderful vacation.
  • It should have been a wonderful vacation.
  • He could have been an opera singer.
  • He might have been an opera singer.
  • He ought to have been an opera singer.
  • He must have been an opera singer.
  • He should have been an opera singer.

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