The Subjunctive

Did your studies in French get you as far as the subjunctive mood and all its weird variations (que je sois, que je fusse, que j’eusse été)?

Things are a little less complicated in English, but still not straightforward. This partly because the English subjunctive, while falling out of use (since the eighteenth century), isn’t dead yet – and was never consistently applied when more alive.

To refresh your memory, the subjunctive is the form of a verb that is used for an action or state that is conceived (but not actual), hypothetical or prospective; or for expressing a wish or command.

You may use the subjunctive without realising it:

  • Go away!
  • Convention be damned!
  • Come what may
  • Come the revolution …
  • Be that as it may
  • Far be it from me
  • If I were you
  • I wish I were there
  • Would that it were true

There are times when you may need to think about it, though.

Not every if or though calls for the subjunctive.  If I were you does, because I am not (and cannot) be you; but it’s If she eats [not eat] strawberries, she breaks out in hives because that’s a statement of fact.

The use (or non-use) of the subjunctive can change meaning. I insist that the contract is signed and I insist that the contract be signed mean different things: the first asserts that the contract has, in fact, been executed; the second, the strong desire that it should be signed. Fowler’s examples in Modern English Usage are more subtle: Though all care is exercised … (= in spite of the fact that care is exercised) as opposed to Though all care be exercised … (= even on the supposition that care has been exercised …).

There are also times when we could do without the subjunctive. It sounds antiquated beyond belief to say If it be no bother … or If I be incorrect about this

The Economist recently took that view in the following headlines, which it decided would look ‘stilted’ (even if classically correct) with a subjunctive: If Donald Trump was president [no longer a hypothetical, that one], If the ocean was transparent. This prompted many letters from dismayed, subjunctive-loving readers: see ‘Would That It Were So Simple: The Strange Tale of the Subjunctive in English’ (Economist, 13 August 2016).

And then there is what is sometimes called the ‘American subjunctive’ (and the Yanks do seem to get into the subjunctive mood more than the Brits):

  • It is moved that X be appointed secretary
  • I suggested that he see a doctor
  • We demanded that the other side disclose the contents of the file
  • The associate insisted that she be admitted to the partnership

The meeting-minutes subjunctive is well-established, but in other constructions think about adding should (I suggested he should see a doctor) or using some other, less strained construction (We asked the other side to disclose; I insist that the other party is [or should be] present; The associate insisted on being admitted).

Next time: redundancy

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. first off, “go away” is an imperative, not a subjunctive.

    second – well put, but you might have been more confident or general about the US usage – Americans consistently use the subjunctive where Brits do not, and I think Canadians tend to the American practice.

    Some British statements seem weird with the indicative when they are commands or wishes. Something like “the boss requested that I am on time more often” – Canadians as well as Americans would say “that I be”.

    That said, some formulations (noted in the article) with ‘to be’ do sound awkward, or archaic – even more so than the subjective case in phrases like ‘it is I’.

    OTOH a paraphrase with ‘should’ or ‘would’ helps resolve that issue, if it is an issue.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, John (although I tend to think the American subjunctive should be avoided). All second-person imperatives are in the subjunctive, actually: Fowler includes them in his examples of subjunctive constructions that still appear natural rather than pedantic.

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