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If she were coming, she would be here by now. I insist that the chairman resign! Their main demand was that the lawsuit be dropped. These sentences all contain verbs in the subjunctive mood, which is used chiefly to express the speaker’s attitude about the likelihood or factuality of a given situation. If the verbs were in the indicative mood, we would expect she was coming in the first sentence, the chairman resigns in the second, and the lawsuit is dropped in the third. 1
English has had a subjunctive mood since Old English times, but most of the functions of the old subjunctive have been taken over by auxiliary verbs like may and should, and the subjunctive survives only in very limited situations. It has a present and past form. The present form is identical to the base form of the verb, so you only notice it in the third person singular, which has no final -s, and in the case of the verb be, which has the form be instead of am, is, and are. The past subjunctive is identical with the past tense except in the case of the verb be, which uses were for all persons: If I were rich …, If he were rich …, If they were rich…. 2
The present subjunctive is most familiar to us in formulaic expressions such as God help him, be that as it may, come what may, and suffice it to say. It also occurs in that clauses used to state commands or to express intentions or necessity:
We insist that he do the job properly.
The committee proposes that she be appointed treasurer immediately.
It is essential that we be informed of your plans.
Other functions include use in some conditional clauses and clauses that make concessions or express purpose. In these cases the subjunctive carries a formal tone:
Whether he be opposed to the plan or not, we must seek his opinion.
Even though he be opposed to the plan, we must try to implement it.
They are rewriting the proposal so that it not contradict new zoning laws.
The subjunctive is not required in such sentences, however, and you can use indicative forms if you prefer (whether he is opposed …). 5
The past subjunctive is sometimes called the were subjunctive, since were is the only subjunctive form that is distinct from the indicative past tense. It appears chiefly in if clauses and in a few other constructions expressing hypothetical conditions:
If he were sorry, he’d have apologized by now.
I wish she weren’t going away.
She’s already acting as if she were going to be promoted.
Suppose she were to resign, what would you do then?
if clauses—the traditional rules. According to traditional rules, you use the subjunctive to describe an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact: if I were ten years younger, if America were still a British Colony. The verb in the main clause of these sentences must then contain the verb would or (less frequently) should: If I were ten years younger, I would consider entering the marathon. If America were still a British colony, we would all be drinking tea in the afternoon. When the situation described by the if clause is not presupposed to be false, however, that clause must contain an indicative verb. The form of verb in the main clause will depend on your intended meaning: If Hamlet was really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius. If Kevin was out all day, then it makes sense that he couldn’t answer the phone. 7
Remember, just because the modal verb would appears in the main clause, this doesn’t mean that the verb in the if clause must be in the subjunctive if the content of that clause is not presupposed to be false: If I was (not were) to accept their offer—which I’m still considering—I would have to start the new job on May 2. He would always call her from the office if he was (not were) going to be late for dinner. 8
Another traditional rule states that you are not supposed to use the subjunctive following verbs such as ask or wonder in if clauses that express indirect questions, even if the content of the question is presumed to be contrary to fact: We wondered if dinner was (not were) included in the room price. Some of the people we met even asked us if California was (not were) an island. 9
if clauses—the reality. In practice, of course, many people ignore the rules. In fact, over the last 200 years even well-respected writers have tended to use the indicative was where the traditional rule would require the subjunctive were. A usage such as If I was the only boy in the world may break the rules, but it sounds perfectly natural. 10
subjunctive after wish. Yet another traditional rule requires you to use were rather than was in a contrary-to-fact statement that follows the verb wish: I wish I were (not was) lighter on my feet. Many writers continue to insist on this rule, but the indicative was in such clauses can be found in the works of many well-known writers. 11
would have for had. In spoken English, there is a growing tendency to use would have in place of the subjunctive had in contrary-to-fact clauses, such as If she would have (instead of if she had) only listened to me, this would never have happened. But this usage is still widely considered an error in writing. Only 14 percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the previously cited sentence, and a similar amount—but 16 percent—accepts it in the sentence I wish you would have told me about this sooner. 12
didn’t for hadn’t. In speech people often substitute didn’t for the subjunctive hadn’t in if clauses, such as If I didn’t have (instead of if I hadn’t had) my seatbelt on, I would be dead. This usage is also considered nonstandard, however. Seventy-one percent of the Usage Panel rejects it, although 18 percent feel it is acceptable in informal contexts. 13
hadn’t have. Another subjunctive form that is sometimes used in speech but is usually edited out of Standard English is the intrusive have occurring in negative constructions, as in We would have been in real trouble if it hadn’t have been for you. In speech this have is always reduced, as hadn’t a’. The hadn’t have construction often appears in conjunction with the verb happen, as in He would have been in real trouble if I hadn’t have happened to be there where standard practice requires if I hadn’t been there. The Usage Panel has little affection for hadn’t have in these situations; 91 percent of panelists find it unacceptable