The Subjunctive Mood

A while ago, I was asked a question which involved my introducing the subjunctive mood. As it was on the ghastly Formspring service, the reply was difficult to find again. So I provide it here for those who have subsequently asked again:


“Why does wish always use the past tense? If, for example, you said “i wish i had the power to change things around here,” you obviously meant you wish you had the power to change the present, not the past. And yet, the past tense is used.”


It might look like the past tense. It might taste like the past tense. But it’s not the past tense.

Let’s talk about moods. People can be in a good mood, a bad mood, a reflective mood. We interpret people’s actions and utterances by taking into account their mood. “Oh, ignore that – he’s just in a bad mood”.

So, people have moods. But did you know that language itself is said to have “moods” too? It doesn’t mean quite the same thing as when a person has a mood, but, as with people, the grammatical mood of the language can make a big difference to its meaning.

The most common-or-garden grammatical mood simply lets us describe things. It’s very matter of fact. It just indicates what’s what. Indeed, we call it the ‘indicative mood’. When I say “John eats cake“, I invoke the indicative mood. I’m simply describing reality as I see it, which includes John’s current consumption of cake. Even if I say “John ate cake” in the past tense, it remains in the indicative mood. The indicative mood describes what it believes to be existing facts about the existing world, whenever they happened to be true. Mood is thus separate from tense.

Another grammatical mood we use is when we want something done. In that mood, we’re not describing an existing state of affairs, but giving orders that are imperative. We thus term this the ‘imperative mood’. Whilst “John eats cake” is simply indicative, “John, eat cake! Now!” is imperative. Sergeant Majors operate almost exclusive in the imperative mood. Every time you give a direct command, you’re engaging in the imperative mood.

There are lots of other grammatical moods – some used in English and some not. Generally, we only call something a grammatical mood when it changes the form of a word in a sentence, rather than just the order of the words. Asking a question in English, for example, is not a ‘mood’ by this definition: this is because we just change the word order around or pop a “do” in front of it. So “you eat” turns into “Do you eat?“. The “eat” bit doesn’t change. So we’re not talking about a “morphological mood” here. In Welsh, though, you actually do change the verb to show you’re asking a question, so that language does, indeed, have a fully fledged ‘interrogative mood’.

So, we’ve talked about how grammatical moods involve the morphing of words to show we’re using that mood. In the imperative, we take the infinitive form of the verb (“to go“, “to run“, “to eat“) and chop off the “to”. So I can say “Go!” “Run!” “Eat!” and I have a full sentence. When we’re issuing commands, we never have to worry about changing that verb to “goes” or similar – the rules of the imperative are simple: chop off the “to” and you’re done.

Let’s see if the ‘indicative’ and the ‘imperative’ are enough to describe most English utterances. We know that most “X = Y” statements are covered by the indicative mood, and we know that most “X, do Y!” statements are covered by the imperative mood. What other sorts of things do we try to communicate? Well, let’s take your example: what if we WISH for something? Are we stating that “X = Y” in the world? Well, no, because if X DID equal Y, then we wouldn’t have to wish for it! So, it’s clearly not the indicative mood. What about the imperative? When we wish for something, are we commanding someone to do something? Nope. We clearly have another mood here, where we are imagining a hypothetical world, not describing a real one. We have actually entered the world of imagination. If I say “I wish X“, I am not saying that X exists or has happened – quite the contrary! I’m saying “X is not true, but I want X to be true“. I am imagining a world where X is true and yearning for it. So we’ve identified a different mood here that’s neither a matter of fact, nor is it bossy. As it happens, we have a fancy Latinate word for this hypothetical mood. We call it the “subjunctive”. It is a subtle and beautiful grammatical mood whose proper use is fading in English, which is a shame, because it’s an elegant way to separate reality from imagination in our utterances.

In some languages, the subjunctive mood has its own special world form unique to itself. Unfortunately, English likes to recycle, and so simply “re-uses” other forms – often from the past tense. Other times, as with the imperative, it simply chops off the “to” from the infinitive. So, you don’t say “I wish I HAVE the power to change things“. The form “have” here seems to show an indicative mood (“I have the power”, as He Man used to say – he could only say that because he was, indeed, in possession thereof!). But clearly, we are NOT “He Man” in your example – hence the wish. So, to show that we’re not indicating a truth, but are actually announcing a desire, we flip the verb into the subjunctive mood – where ‘have’ turns into ‘had’. Ok, it looks like the past tense, but it isn’t: again, don’t blame me for English’s abstemious recycling!

Where else can we see the subjunctive mood in action? Remember the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof? Notice that he doesn’t say “If I am a rich man” because “I am” is reserved for the indicative mood. He is in fact a poor man who imagines what would happen if that changed, and so the “am” flips to “were”. Again, it looks like a form of the past tense, but isn’t. Indeed, in that form of the subjunctive, “is, am, are” or whatever ALWAYS becomes “were”. That’s why Gwen Stefani’s horrible remake, where she sings “If I Was a Rich Girl” should now hurt your ears like fingernails on a blackboard. No, Gwen! If you’re imagining a moneyed life, you enunciate your hypothesis with “were”, not “was”! You are not describing something that “was” in the past but something that you wish WERE true but is not. Bad Gwen!

You can only use “was” if you actually believe that something that happened in the past is at least possibly true. But if you’re completely in the world of hypothetical imagination, you use “were”. Here’s an example which makes this clear: imagine someone enters a meeting late and simply sits down without a word. His boss looks up huffily and says “If *I* were late, then *I* would apologise“. (In other words, the boss knows that *HE* turned up to the meeting on time, and postulates a world in which that were not true, and imagines what he’d do in that hypothetical situation). The latecomer replies “If I *was* late, then I *do* apologise” (in other words, the latecomer admits that he may well have been late – this is not simply some hypothetical universe, but very possible describes the real one’s recent past, in which he was inadvertently rude!). I hope that reveals the subtle but useful difference between “was” and “were” in these contexts, and why Ms Stefani needs to be admonished severely. Perhaps she could sing “If I *was* a rich girl, then I have no memory of it, and God knows what happened to the money!“. But if she’s not describing the possible misremembered past, then it should be “were” every time!

The subjunctive mood goes even deeper than this. Indeed, any time you say a sentence with “should”, did you know that you can often use the subjunctive mood instead? After all, “should” imagines a world in which things are different, and so does the pure subjunctive mood. Let’s try it:
God should bless our Gracious Queen” has the “should” lopped out and turns into “God bless our Gracious Queen” in the subjunctive. Yep, all these years, you’ve been uttering a subjunctive in the UK anthem. We’re not ORDERING God to do anything. We’re not singing “God – you’d better bless our Gracious Queen – NOW!“. That’d be rather rude and probably make Him cross. So instead of the imperative, we use the subjunctive and politely postulate a desired world in which God does, indeed, continue to bless Her Majesty. And when you say “Bless you“, you’re using the subjunctive form of “[God should] bless you“. You simply lop off the implicit “should” bit and you have the subjunctive form, expressing a desire.

You could, clumsily but correctly, say “I would rather he should go to church than play his video games“. You’re uttering an opinion of a hypothetical world that you want to be true. As ever, you can use the simple subjunctive form like this instead: “I would rather he go to church“. Just lop off the “should” and you’re there. Note that some people mistakenly say “I would rather he GOES to church“. You can now see that this is incorrect. The “goes” form is reserved for the present indicative mood. You can say “He’s a good boy, because he goes to church instead of playing his video games”. That’s the indicative. You’re approvingly indicating a truth about the existing world. Otherwise, “goes” has no place in a sentence of desire. The subjunctive takes the “should” form instead, which is always “go” no matter to whom or to how many it relates. So, you would say “I would rather I/he/she/it go”. The “go” always remains “go” in the subjunctive, just as if it had the word “should” in front of it. Any time you’re expressing a hope, a desire, a need, a musing or simply stating something which has only happened in the parallel world of your mind, you use the subjunctive mood if you’re an elegant fellow. Let’s imagine that you’re fretting about your slow-eating friend’s being late for a play. So, you leave a message saying “I need that he eat early, in order that we be in time for the musical“. Nobody’s yet eaten when we say this. The musical hasn’t yet started. We’re talking about a hypothetical universe of our desires. And so we use the subjunctive twice: firstly to express our desire for early eating (“he eat“, which could have been “he should eat“) and secondly to express our desire for timeliness (“that we be on time“, which could have been “we should be on time“). Again, some people would have messed up the mood and said something like “in order that we ARE on time”. Again, though, they’re WRONG. We reserve “are” for the indicative here. We can indicate that we ARE, indeed, on time, when we actually arrive punctually, but if the deadline hasn’t arrived, then we can wish we BE on time, and if the deadline has passed and we fail, we can wish we WERE on time. When we shunt the verb to “be” or “were”, we make it clear that we’ve shifted our speech to describing the world of desires rather than the world of reality. And isn’t that a marvellous thing to be able to communicate? Is it not, indeed, the essence of what makes human communication so special? I hope that you treasure the subjunctive and use it well. (there’s one!)

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