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...'?