If the Subjunctive Were Easy
By Suzanne E. Rowe
If you are part of the 99 percent of the English speakers on the planet who find the subjunctive mysterious, frightening or panic-inducing — you can relax. You likely use subjunctive verbs without even knowing it. This article will help you make peace with subjunctive verbs, explaining how to construct the subjunctive and when to use it. (Of course, you might get excited and start using the subjunctive intentionally.)
Beyond Basic Verbs
“Most people don’t realize it, but verbs can be as moody as cats.”1
Like cats, verbs are complex creatures. Verbs have not only tenses and voices, but also moods. Here’s a quick review:
The tense of a verb indicates when the action took place: past, present or future (e.g., she writes today, she wrote yesterday, she will write tomorrow).
The voice of a verb shows or hides the actor in the sentence. The active voice shows that the subject of the sentence is the actor (e.g., she wrote the article), while the passive voice either downplays the actor (e.g., the article was written by her) or hides the actor (e.g., the article was written).
The mood of the verb demonstrates its connection to reality. Verbs in the indicative mood are the ones we use most of the time — to explain the world as it currently exists (e.g., she writes articles at midnight) or to ask questions (e.g., who wrote the article?).
Verbs in the subjunctive mood show a more interesting state of affairs, expressing the world not as it actually exists, but how it might exist. Some subjunctive verbs express desire by stating wishes and hopes. Some subjunctive verbs offer suggestions or make demands. And some subjunctive verbs describe an alternate universe, making statements that contradict reality.
Common Subjunctive Phrases
“Although grammarians are constantly discussing its demise, the subjunctive mood is still used in a variety of situations.”2
Before delving into the details of subjunctives, let’s look at some common subjunctive phrases.3We all accept the existence of the subjunctive, at least implicitly, and many of us take it for granted. Even if the mere mention of subjunctive verbs stirs fear in your heart, you might use it all the time:
If I were you, I wouldn’t work with him.
Be that as it may, you are making a mistake.
Far be it from me to try to control your career, but he’s a bad lawyer.
God help you if you decide to work with him on the case.
The opening to each sentence above is in the subjunctive mood. Some openings might sound awkward because the verb used isn’t one we would normally expect. For instance, some verbs don’t seem to agree with their subjects. No one would ever write “I were” (as in “I were at the store yesterday”), but “If I were you” is correct in the example. Other verbs in the list of common subjunctives include an extra “be,” as in “Be that as it may” and “Far be it from me.” Those phrases spring to our lips without grammatical analysis.
Constructing Subjunctive Verbs
Forming the subjunctive is easy. In almost all instances, the subjunctive verb is the same as the indicative verb.
Indicative: They sign the documents. Subjunctive: Their attorney suggested that they sign the documents.
Here are two instances when the two moods produce different verbs. First, in the third person singular (he, she, it), the final “s” is omitted from some indicative verbs to form the subjunctive. For the verb “to be,” the subjunctive form is the same as the plural (e.g., the indicative she was becomes subjunctive she were).
Indicative: He signs the papers. Subjunctive: The rule requires that he sign the papers.
Indicative: She was defense counsel in a similar case. Subjunctive: If she were defense counsel in this case, she would follow a different strategy.
Second, in some instances the infinitive form of the verb (i.e., the “to” form) is used without the “to,” resulting in verbs like “be granted.”
Indicative: The judge grants parole. Subjunctive: The attorney suggests that his client be granted parole.
Using the Subjunctive
The subjunctive isn’t used much in English. (Those of us trying to master Spanish are endlessly grateful because the subjunctive seems to pop up everywhere in that language.) The following four situations cover most of the subjunctive usage in English.
1. Wishful thinking. The subjunctive can express your deepest desires:
I wish he were here.
But he’s not here. He’s in London, and he’s staying there.
2. Unreal ideas. The subjunctive expresses an idea that is contrary to fact:
If he were here, we could close the deal immediately.
But he’s in London, so having him here is contrary to reality.
Note that not every “if” clause requires a subjunctive verb. Use the indicative when the statement might be true, but the writer isn’t certain. For example:
If he comes next week, we can still close the deal easily.
He might come next week, but he might not — the writer doesn’t know — so the indicative “comes” is appropriate.
The “if” clause needs the subjunctive when the statement is contrary to fact and quite unlikely to be true. The main character in “Fiddler on the Roof” sings, “If I were a rich man.” He’s not rich, and he knows he never will be.
3. Requirements. Use the subjunctive to state a requirement:
The contract requires that any changes be made in writing with all parties present.
4. Suggestions. Using the subjunctive can soften the force of a suggestion:
The attorneys suggested that he be given another week to come to Oregon to sign the papers.
Note that the use of subjunctive for requirements and suggestions is different from the imperativemood we use to issue commands, like “Give him another week!” There’s nothing soft or subtle about that.
I’m not advocating a surge in subjunctive usage; even I’m not such a curmudgeon. If you come across a clause in your own writing that might need a subjunctive verb but you are uncertain, you can often finesse the situation by using should, could or would as alternatives.
Subjunctive: They wish their supervisor were better organized. Alternative: They wish their supervisor would be better organized.
Most writers don’t know or recognize the subjunctive these days, so you’re unlikely to encounter these verbs often. Moreover, most readers won’t notice when you choose to use the subjunctive. But “a few careful readers will note your grammatical fastidiousness;”4 I’m one of them. This article is dedicated to Prof. Emeritus Maury Holland, who also appreciates “grammatical fastidiousness” and gently suggested that I write a refresher on the subjunctive.
1. Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students 15 (2011).
2. Anne Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer 188 (4th ed. 2013).
3. The New Oxford American Dictionary 1773 (3d ed. 2010).
4. Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace 26-27 (6th ed. 2000).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She appreciates the comments of Elizabeth Frost, Amy Nuetzman and Lauren Russell on several of the multiple drafts of this article. If only the subjunctive were easy!
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2013 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost