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    The Subjunctive Mood of English Verbs

    The Subjunctive Mood of English Verbs

    English verbs express three grammatical moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Grammatical mood is defined as a set of distinctive verb forms that express modality. Modality is the grammaticalized expression of the subjective attitude of the speaker, which includes opinions about possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency. In the English language, the subjunctive mood expresses commands, doubts, guesses, hypotheses, purposes, requests, suggestions, and wishes that are contrary to fact at the time of the utterance.

    Formation of the Subjunctive Mood

    The English language differs from many other Indo-European languages in that subjunctive forms of English verbs closely resemble the corresponding forms of the indicative mood. The English subjunctive is distinguishable in form only from the indicative in the third person singular present tense forms and in forms that require the verb be as the initial auxiliary verb of the verb phrase.

    The verb phrase patterns for the subjunctive mood in the active voice are as follows:

    • Simple Present – base
    • Present Progressive – simple present subjunctive be + present participle
    • Present Perfect – simple present subjunctive have + past participle
    • Present Perfect-Progressive – simple present subjunctive have + past participle be + present participle
    • Simple Past – base(ed), base + stem change (same as simple past indicative)
    • Past Progressive – simple past subjunctive be + present participle
    • Past Perfect – simple past subjunctive have + past participle
    • Past Perfect-Progressive – simple past subjunctive have + past participle be + present participle

    The verb phrase patterns for the subjunctive mood in the passive voice are as follows:

    • Simple Present – simple present subjunctive be + past participle
    • Present Progressive – simple present subjunctive be + present participle be + past participle
    • Present Perfect – simple present subjunctive have + past participle be + past participle
    • Present Perfect-Progressive – simple present subjunctive have + past participle be + present participle be + past participle
    • Simple Past – simple past subjunctive be + past participle
    • Past Progressive – simple past subjunctive be + present participle be + past participle
    • Past Perfect – simple past subjunctive have + past participle be + past participle
    • Past Perfect-Progressive – simple past subjunctive have + past participle be + present participle be + past participle

    The conjugations of the verb be in the subjunctive mood and active voice are as follows:

    • Simple Present – be
    • Present Progressive – be being
    • Present Perfect – have been
    • Present Perfect-Progressive – have been being
    • Simple Past – were
    • Past Progressive – were being
    • Past Perfect – had been
    • Past Perfect-Progressive – had been being

    As a copular verb, be lacks passive forms. Only transitive verbs, which are verbs that take objects, and verbs with verb phrase complements may be conjugated into the passive voice

    The following chart outlines the verb phrase patterns for the subjunctive mood:

    Subjunctive Mood Verb Phrase Patterns

    The following chart provides examples of the subjunctive mood for regular verbs, irregular verbs, and the anomalous verb be. The verbs highlighted in blue different completely from the forms of the indicative mood, and the verbs highlighted in green differ from the forms of the indicative mood only in the third person singular. The verbs not highlighted are identical in form in the subjunctive and indicative moods. The copular verb be as well as other copular verbs and some intransitive verbs (usually without verb phrase complements) lack subjunctive passive forms.

    Subjunctive Mood Examples

    For example:

    • It is recommended that your child bring a coat to the field trip. (active simple present subjunctive)
    • God save the Queen. (active simple present subjunctive)
    • The church requests that all parishioners be praying at noon tomorrow. (active present progressive subjunctive)*
    • It is desirable that he have processed the requests by the end of the week. (active present perfect subjunctive)*
    • I suggest that you have been reading the assigned chapters ahead of schedule. (active present perfect-progressive subjunctive)*
    • If I were a boy, I would turn off my phone. (active simple past subjunctive)
    • She would not have yelled at him if he were smiling in his school picture. (active past progressive subjunctive)
    • Had the bus arrived on time, your grandmother would not have been so angry. (active past perfect subjunctive)
    • My brother would not have failed his licensing examination if he had not been partying. (active past perfect-progressive subjunctive)
    • My boss recommends that the cake be ordered from the pricey bakery. (passive simple present subjunctive)
    • It is imperative that alcoholic drinks be being drunk only by legal adults at this party. (passive present progressive subjunctive)*
    • The editor will insist that a reference have been included in the article. (passive present perfect subjunctive)*
    • The Dean desires that the final report have been being compiled by the staff today. (passive present perfect-progressive subjunctive)
    • You could lose everything if your house were hit by a tornado. (passive simple past subjunctive)
    • Were the main hallway being repainted, I would take the long way around to my office. (passive past progressive subjunctive)
    • If your car had been damaged in the hail storm, you could have filed a claim with your insurance company. (passive past perfect subjunctive)
    • My garden would have produced more than enough food for the winter had my crops not been being eaten by rabbits and squirrels at night. (passive past perfect-progressive subjunctive)

    *Although grammatically correct, certain forms of the subjunctive are rarely used in contemporary English.

    Negating Subjunctive Verb Phrases

    The negation of the subjunctive mood further differs from the negation of the indicative mood. Negation is the grammatical operation whereby a proposition is replaced by one that states the opposite. An affirmative form expresses the validity or truth of a basic assertion. A negative form expresses the falsity of a basic assertion.

    To negate a simple form in the indicative mood, insert the operator do and the negative adverb not before the verb. For example:

    • He studies. (positive)
    • He does not study. (negated)
    • She goes to the movies. (positive)
    • She does not go to the movies. (negated)

    To negate a simple form in the subjunctive mood, however, simply insert the negative adverb not before the verb. For example:

    • The teacher demands that he study. (positive)
    • The teacher demands that he not study. (negated)
    • It is imperative that she go to the movies. (positive)
    • It is imperative that she not go to the movies. (negated)

    Use of the Subjunctive Mood

    The subjunctive mood most often appears in if-clauses and following certain verbs and phrases that express possibility, necessity, and contingency. Unlike the indicative mood, the subjunctive mood almost always appears in a subordinate clause. Also referred to as dependent clauses, subordinate clauses are grammatical structures that consist of a subordinating conjunction followed by a subject and a predicate but that cannot function independently as complete sentences.

    If­-clauses are the first type of subordinate clause in which the subjunctive mood appears. An if-clause is a subordinate clause that begins with the subordinating conjunction if. The subjunctive mood in English most frequently appears in adverb if-clauses because such if-clauses always express possibility, necessity, and contingency. For example:

    • If I were to cancel, would you be too upset? (subjunctive)
    • If he were a rich man, he would buy himself a huge house in the hills. (subjunctive)
    • You would have passed the test if you had studied. (subjunctive)

    However, not all if-clauses contain subjunctive forms. Noun if-clauses some adverb if­-clauses contain indicative forms. For example:

    • I do not care if he comes or not. (indicative)
    • If she attends college is up to her. (indicative)
    • If it rains, the picnic will be postponed. (indicative)

    The main difference between subjunctive if-clauses and indicative if-clauses is that the subject and verb may invert in subjunctive if-clauses. For example:

    • If I were to cancel, would you be too upset? (subjunctive)
    • Were I to cancel, would you be too upset? (subjunctive)
    • You would have passed the test if you had studied. (subjunctive)
    • You would have passed the test had you studied. (subjunctive)
    • I do not care if he comes or not. (indicative)
    • *I do not care comes he or not. (incorrect)
    • If it rains, the picnic will be postponed. (indicative)
    • *Rains it, the picnic will be postponed. (incorrect)

    In addition to appearing in if-clauses, the subjunctive mood also follows certain verbs and phrases that express possibility, necessity, and contingency. For example, some of the most common verbs that take the subjunctive mood in the noun clause that follows the verb include the following:

    • advise that
    • ask that
    • command that
    • demand that
    • desire that
    • insist that
    • propose that
    • recommend that
    • request that
    • suggest that
    • urge that
    • wish that

    Some of the most common English phrases that also take the subjunctive mood in the noun clause that follows the phrase include:

    • It is best that
    • It is crucial that
    • It is desirable that
    • It is essential that
    • It is imperative that
    • It is important that
    • It is necessary that
    • It is recommended that
    • It is urgent that
    • It is vital that
    • It is a good idea that
    • It is a bad idea that

    Decline of the Subjunctive in Modern English

    Unlike in other many other modern Indo-European languages, modern English is quickly losing distinct verb forms in the subjunctive mood. For example, consider the following English song lyrics:

    • If I were a boy, even just for one day, I’d roll out of bed in the morning and throw on what I wanted and go drink beer with the guys. (Beyoncé)
    • If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway, would you have my baby? (Johnny Cash)
    • If I was a rich girl, see, I’d have all the money in the world, if I was a wealthy girl. (Gwen Stefani)
    • If I was a sailor, I would sail you out to sea, take you across the ocean, ask you to marry me. (Young Rebel Set)

    In the first two examples, Beyoncé and Johnny Cash use the subjunctive form of the verb be in the if-clauses If I were a boy, If I were a carpenter, and if you were a lady. In the second two examples, Gwen Stefani and Young Rebel Set use the indicative form of the verb be in the if-clauses If I was a rich girl, if I was a wealthy girl, and If I was a sailor. However, in all four cases, the if-clauses express contingency regardless of the form of the verb. Modern English speakers often use indicative forms with subjunctive meanings within if-clauses and especially with the verb be within if-clauses.

    Modern English speakers similarly use other indicative forms to express the subjunctive mood. For example, consider the following sentences:

    • I recommend that he wash his hands after handling the turtle.
    • I recommend that he washes his hands after handling the turtle.
    • It is important that she arrive on time for her job interview.
    • It is important that she arrives on time for her job interview.

    In all four examples, the that-clauses express subjunctivity. In the first and third sentences, the verbs wash and arrive take subjunctive forms. In the second and fourth sentences, the verbs take indicative forms but still express subjunctive meanings. The decline of the subjunctive in English is even more apparent and inevitable when considering the fact that about half of the subjunctive forms are already identical to the indicative forms. The subjunctive had been walking is indistinguishable in form from the indicative had been walking. In fact, the use of subjunctive forms is only required in the most formal registers of English usage. Language change is inevitable, and all distinct subjunctive forms may soon disappear from the English language.

    The subjunctive mood of English verbs expresses commands, doubts, guesses, hypotheses, purposes, requests, suggestions, and wishes that are contrary to fact at the time of the utterance. Verbs conjugated into the subjunctive are distinguishable in form only from the indicative in the third person singular present tense forms and in forms that require the verb be as the initial auxiliary verb of the verb phrase.

    Summary

    The subjunctive mood is a verb form that expresses the subjective attitude of the speaker, which includes opinions about possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency.

    The subjunctive mood in English expresses commands, doubts, guesses, hypotheses, purposes, requests, suggestions, and wishes that are contrary to fact at the time of the utterance.

    The subjunctive form of English verbs is distinguishable in form only from the indicative in the third person singular present tense forms and in forms that require the verb be as the initial auxiliary verb of the verb phrase.

    To negate a simple form in the subjunctive mood, however, simply insert the negative adverb not before the verb.

    References

    Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
    Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
    Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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