Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Basics: The Subjunctive Mood

Did you know that verbs have moods?

Yes, they do.  Which makes me feel better about my OWN moods. *grin*

So one of my (many) pet peeves is the misuse of the SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD.  In fact, I'll bet you've all made this mistake countless times, both in your writing and in your speaking.  The misuse is so common that most people don't even realize it's a mistake.

But you are all WRITERS.  So you want to do things right.  Right?


Basically, the subjunctive mood is used when something is being declared with a WISH or a DOUBT.  In other words, if the outcome is uncertain, our verb gets MOODY.  The word "subjunctive", in fact, means DOUBTFUL.

So if the verb in your sentence has "IF" or "WISH" before it, it needs to be in the subjunctive mood.

As always, examples work best:

*WRONG* He would be taller if he was older.
*CORRECT* He would be taller if he were older.

*WRONG* I wish I was a better writer.
*CORRECT* I wish I were a better writer.

*WRONG* If it rains tomorrow, our plans will be ruined.
*CORRECT* If it should rain tomorrow, our plans will be ruined.

*WRONG* He spoke as if he was the only one in the room.
*CORRECT* He spoke as if he were the only one in the room.

*WRONG* If you are quiet, you will hear the baby birds.
*CORRECT* If you be quiet, you will hear the baby birds.

*WRONG* If it is hot, we'll go swimming.
*CORRECT* If it be hot, we'll go swimming.

Okay, I'll admit it.  The last one sounds like pirate speak.  I mean, who TALKS that way?  Yet technically it's correct.  One hundred percent.  (However, if you make your characters talk that way, I'll have to glue your fingers together for a while.)

But really, the most common error is the was/were confusion.  The rule is:  If "if" or "wish" comes before the verb, than it is "were" and NOT "was".

Clear as mud? I wish there were a simpler way to put it!


  1. I was looking at subjunctive moods on Google today after I saw you talking about it on Twitter. Thanks for making this topic so much clearer!

  2. Okay, those last two just don't sound right. You're right, your character will sound like a pirate if you write them that way in your ms. :D

  3. I was clear on the was/were confusion, but the others were new for me. Gotta say, I'll proudly be wrong to avoid those last two.

  4. 1) 'Subjunctive' does not mean 'doubtful': from L.L. subjunctivus "serving to join, connecting," from pp. stem of subjungere "to append, add at the end, place under," from sub "under" + jungere "to join"

    2) "...before the verb, than it is...": how about, 'THEN it is...'?

  5. I think you might help your readers by researching your answers on Project Gutenberg and Bartleby. (You can do this by including site:projectgutenberg.org or site:bartleby.com at the end of your Google search terms.) These are sites with "respectable" authors like Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, and James Joyce.

    For example, try this search:

    "as if he was" site:gutenberg.org

    It's perfectly fine. James Joyce uses it. Edith Wharton uses it. The phrase gets used about twice as often as "as if he were."

    Similar searches will confirm that "if it rains" is perfectly correct and in no way inferior to the also acceptable "if it should rain." And "if it is" has always been acceptable whereas "if it be" is archaic and rarely employed in modern literate usage.

    Fowler's 1908 discussion of the subjunctive is worth reading in full. (http://www.bartleby.com/116/215.html). In particular, note this delightful observation:

    The use of true subjunctive forms (if he be, though it happen) in conditional sentences is for various reasons not recommended. These forms, with the single exception of were, are perishing so rapidly that an experienced word-actuary puts their expectation of life at one generation. As a matter of style, they should be avoided, being certain to give a pretentious air when handled by any one except the skilful and practised writers who need no advice from us.

    I know it might be difficult to hear this, but may I recommend deleting this post? Or perhaps it could be changed to simply point to Fowler's discussion, or Mencken's (also on Bartleby)? As it stands, the post is incorrect and will mislead those who hope to be educated by it.

    1. Hello, Bill!

      This blog is long dead, its readers long scattered. But every so often, someone happens upon it and I receive notification of a comment. Such as yours today!

      I wanted to thank you for your links, and for your thoughtful response. I am always happy to read up on all things grammatical, as it is a passion of mine.

      I do agree with the archaic notion of usages such as "if it be". However, I also believe that it is imperative to instruct young minds on the correct usage anyway (and I do disagree that this post is incorrect -- it is not). Here is why: In everyday writing, in the modern novel, in informal writing, your suggestions are absolutely spot-on. However, to maintain the integrity of formal writing (research papers, educational non-fiction, etc.), I believe it's important to keep the highest integrity of usage.

      Even Tevya still sings, "If I were a rich man." It is not incorrect to teach correct usage, despite the continuing evolvement of our language. The key is to know when it is appropriate to break these rules, and when it is not.

      One cannot intelligently break a rule if one does not know the rule in the first place. ;)

      (I am also a freelancer editor, and I continually correct my clients' incorrect subjunctive, particularly "if he were" and so forth.)

      At any rate, it's neither here nor there. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to respond to this old post, and for the links!

    2. (Also? Dickens and Joyner were both from the UK, where it is more common to say "if he was". There are numerous differences between UK and US English, as I'm sure you know.)