Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Subjunctive Renaissance

The subjunctive mood is a conjugated verb that deals with the condition of the unreal. That’s right, there’s a whole conjugation form to express things that are not true or are not likely to become true. And here’s the sad part: it’s disappearing from common usage.


I taught Business English at one of those media-focused junior colleges for a while, and I was surprised to find out that not one single person in any of my classes knew about the subjunctive. You can be part of a movement to save subjunctive from the annals of the archaic!


Use this form of the verb (typically some form of “to be”) to express a command, condition, desire, doubt, possibility, or wish. You can also use subjunctive for poetical or rhetorical effect.


Sanity be damned.

If only I were rich.


In non-subjunctive usage, you’d conjugate “to be” relative to the pronoun, right? So you’d be inclined to say:


Sanity is damned.

If only I was rich.


Ugh. Those just sound wrong, don’t they? Well, they ARE wrong. They’re wrong because the past- or present-tense verb doesn’t lead readers toward the meaning of the sentence. When you use the subjunctive form, as in the previous example, readers know that you are not now or very likely to become rich or to revel in sanity.


Another use for subjunctive is to express that a command or request was given.


The dean decreed that the student be admitted to class.


If you change “be” to “was” or “is” or any other form of the verb, the sentence doesn’t make sense any more. Suddenly, you have present tense for something that happened in the past (the subject of another blog, the sad diminution of past tense in common speech).


The most popular use for subjunctive is the condition of the unreal. This is my favorite, and you can pretty much always default to the verb “were” for its illustration.


           If I were king…

            If unemployment were not so high…

           If I were rich…

But you don’t want to go all extremist about it and start changing sentences left and right. Look at this pair of sentences and see what you think.


            The dean declared that if there were any discrepancy, the fault was not his.

            The dean declared that if there was any discrepancy, the fault was not his.


In the first sentence, the dean is covering his behind in the case of an unknown problem. In the second sentence, the dean knows of some problem or controversy over a problem and isn’t admitting that it really is a problem. Does this remind you of any political speeches?


The words “if” and “as though” are tip-offs that the subjunctive is necessary.


The man looked as though he would faint.

The cake looked as if it were already eaten and rejected.

 If thoughts came true, we would all be in trouble.


If the tense of any of those verbs were changed (would, were, would be), the meaning would also change.


           The man looked as though he was faint.

            The cake looked as if it was already eaten and rejected.

             If thoughts come true, we are all in trouble.


In a somewhat old-fashioned use of the word, “faint” is a health condition, so this sentence is not entirely wrong. It’s just not as clear as the previous example. In the second example of the second sentence, the cake has gone from merely looking repulsive to actually being repulsive. In the third sentence, you could get away with the second example only if you are also expressing a belief that thoughts do come true and that their influence on life is unpleasant.


One last thing: make sure that when you use subjunctive, you match the case in both parts of the sentence.


           If you earned $100, you could buy those new shoes.

            If you earned $100, you can buy those new shoes.

            If you earn $100, you could buy those new shoes.


The first sentence is correct, where the subjunctive in the second half matches that of the first. In the second sentence, the only way to make it grammatically correct is to change “earned” to “earn,” which puts it back into subjunctive like the third sentence, which also seems to be suggesting a shopping excursion.