Grammar: the subjunctive. Where and what is it?
Intermediate to advanced level (B1-C2)
Every language has developed over time. Modern English is simpler than older versions but contains some features from the past. With ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, the verb form might occasionally surprise you.
We do many things with language apart from talking about simple facts. For example, we make suggestions and requests and express doubt and wishes. In English, you can often do these things using modal verbs but you can also use verbs in the subjunctive mood.
Traditionally, people have said that English has three moods: the imperative, the indicative and the subjunctive. When you learn English at school, you probably focus on the indicative mood e.g. ‘John eats an apple.’ or ‘John ate an apple.’ When you speak, you will often use the imperative mood e.g. ‘Please give me the dictionary.’ However, we also use the subjunctive mood but it is rather hidden. Alternatively, you could say that, in most cases, it has disappeared from English and that today we simply use the base form of the verb rather than a special verb ending!
Let’s look at a sentence giving some medical advice to a patient:
‘It’s necessary you take the tablets three times a day.’
You might not realise but this sentence contains a subjunctive verb form. The verb is ‘take’ but its spelling with ‘you’ is the same as the infinitive, the imperative (Take your drugs!) and most of the present tense/indicative (I take my drugs every day.).
However, with ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ we can see a difference:
‘It’s necessary he take the tablets three times a day.’ (subjunctive)
‘He takes his drugs every day.’ (present indicative)
We can also see a difference in how the negative is constructed (the subjunctive is without ‘do’):
‘I recommend he not take his drugs more than three times a day.’ (subjunctive)
‘He doesn’t take his drugs more than three times a day.’ (present indicative)
Also, with the verb ‘be’ the subjunctive is more obvious:
I suggest I be allowed to leave (passive subjunctive)
I suggest you be more careful next time. (subjunctive)
I suggest he be more careful next time. (subjunctive)
When we talk about a situation that is not possible, we can use ‘were’. E.g.
‘If I were you, I would be more careful next time’ (This does not refer to past time!). However, more informally and especially in conversation, many people don’t use the subjunctive form and just say:
‘If I was you, I would be more careful next time’
The subjunctive in conditional sentences
The following refer to what is unreal or not the case. Note that the time reference is not the past:
If I were you. I would tell him.
If I had the time, I still wouldn’t do it.
If I spoke Chinese, I’d know what was going on.
As mentioned above, in modern English, modal verbs are very often used when expressing ‘subjunctive meanings’ and are often used with subjunctive verb forms in conditional sentences that express unreality e.g.
If I had £10,000, I would buy a sports car.
I you had told me, I could have helped.
Had I known, I would have done something.
Used with ‘wish’ (referring to an unreal situation):
I wish I had a job. (You don’t have one)
I wish I worked in London. (You don’t)
I wish I were younger. (You’re not)
In the examples above, apart from when ‘be’ is used, there is no difference in spelling between the past subjunctive and the past simple.
Adjectives, verbs and formality
At this point I should say that in modern English we have many ways to express advice, demands etc and the subjunctive is only sometimes used. Choosing to use the subjunctive often makes your English more formal or traditional. Please also note that it is more common in American English.
Some adjectives that have a ‘subjunctive meaning’ can be followed by verbs in the that mood but other ways are possible which are not so formal:
It’s vital/essential/important/desirable (that) she co-operate (Usually rather formal) or
It’s vital/essential/important/desirable (that) she should co-operate (With ‘should. Usually a little formal) or
It’s vital/essential/important/desirable (that) she co-operates (Present simple. Usually less formal)
It is the same with some verbs:
We insist/suggest/recommend/demand (that) he see a doctor (Usually rather formal) or
We insist/suggest/recommend/demand (that) he should see a doctor (With ‘should. Usually a little formal) or
We insist/suggest/recommend/demand (that) he sees a doctor (Present simple. Usually less formal)
Some expressions which include the subjunctive:
‘be that as it may’ This expression means that the facts are not important or they won’t change your mind e.g.
A. Tom is a lovely guy.
B. Be that as it may, I’m not going to invite him to my party.
‘so be it’ This means you accept a situation as it is e.g.
If he wants to waste his money on those ridiculous clothes, so be it.
‘far be it for/from me’ This is used to say you don’t want to criticise someone but then do e.g.
Far be it for me to criticise but shouldn’t you check your information one more time?