How to Use the Subjunctive Mood in English

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In the subjunctive mood, the base form of the verb (such as work, live, be, and so forth) is always used in present-tense constructs, regardless of the subject of the sentence.

Example:

I demand that he be paid what he is worth!

For most verbs (other than to be, for example), this means that in the subjunctive, the third-person form is the same as all of the other verb forms.

Examples:

I insist that John stay [not stays] with us for a few days.

They suggest that she apply [not applies] for the job.

In addition, the past-tense form of the verb in the subjunctive mood is the same as the regular past tense form of the verb. The only exception is with the verb to be, when were (not was) is used.

Not:

If I was you, I would accept his offer.

But:

If I were you, I would accept his offer.

In modern English, the subjunctive form is found only in subordinate clauses. The subjunctive is used for:

  • expressing desires.
  • expressing ideas that are conditional or contrary to fact.
  • expressing requests, recommendations, or demands.

Desires

We often use the subjunctive case to express desires.

Examples:

I wish I were in Fiji.

I’m sure he wishes he were here.

It would be fantastic if you were on time once in a while.

In speech, we often say such things as “I wish someone was here to help me,” but in formal writing, the subjunctive form should be used (“I wish someone were here to help me.”).

Contrary to Fact

Ideas that are conditional (if statements) or that are contrary to fact require the subjunctive.

Examples:

If I were you, I would leave as soon as possible.

If I had a million dollars, I would still live in a shack.

If John were here, he would know what to do.

Some if statements do not require the subjunctive because the condition is presumed to be true. In these instances, the regular indicative case should be used.

Examples:

If they are here, they must be in the family room.

If he is correct, then that means our calculations were way off.

Requests, Recommendations, or Demands

For sentences containing requests, recommendations, or demands, the subjunctive verb form is used following that.

Examples:

All I ask is that she pay her bills on time.

If you want to maintain your position, then I insist that you be civil.

I suggest that he register early in order to beat the rush.

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