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Hypothetically Speaking: The English Subjunctive

Frances Peck
(Terminology Update, Volume 35, Number 3, 2002, page 19)

Ever wish for something? Ever imagine you were in a different place, a different time, a different situation? Ever recommend something or give unsolicited advice? If so, it’s hardly a surprise. You’re human. But what might be a surprise is that you’ve used the subjunctive, perhaps without knowing it. "I wish I were a rock star," "If I were a carpenter," "I recommend that he take pottery," "If I were you"—all these verbs are subjunctive.

What is the subjunctive?

As verb forms go, the subjunctive is almost human too. Hypothetical, contrary, shaped by history, it’s difficult to define and slippery to categorize. In The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, editor R.W. Burchfield describes the subjunctive as "one of the great shifting sands of English grammar." It is so complex, he notes, that "the standard reference work on historical English syntax" (An Historical Syntax of the English Language, 1963-73, by F. Th. Visser) devotes 156 pages to the subject and lists more than 300 bibliographical references.

The average mortal might skip such encyclopedic explanations and head straight for a favourite grammar or language guide. Such texts usually dispense with the subjunctive in a page or two. But their explanations, though concise, are confusingly varied. Some classify the subjunctive by function, using such terms as "mandative," "volitional" and "formulaic." Others align it with tense, referring to present and past subjunctives. Still others dispute the association with tense. The second edition of Fowler’s (the one before Burchfield’s) observes that the subjunctive were does not refer to the past but rather "to present or to undefined time, or more truly not to time at all (and especially not to a particular past time) but to utopia, the realm of non-fact."

This brings us to the heart of the subjunctive. It exists to express information that is hypothetical, contrary to fact, recommended or suggested. The subjunctive is not a verb tense; it is a mood. English verbs have three moods: (1) indicative, for making statements and asking questions ("I am piling wood; are you piling wood?"); (2) imperative, for giving commands or instructions ("Pile the wood"); and (3) subjunctive ("I suggest that he pile the wood").

The subjunctive originated in Old English and was common until about 1600. Then began its long decline. Today we use the subjunctive only in a smattering of circumstances, which is precisely why it’s so difficult to grasp. Unlike French or Spanish, where the subjunctive is a full-course meal, served up systematically, in English all we have is leftovers.

Some of the leftovers show up in familiar expressions. "Far be it from me," "God bless you" and "as it were" are all subjunctive scraps. But in everyday writing, we normally use the subjunctive in two situations. Recognizing them and the sentence patterns they involve is a practical way of mastering the subjunctive without getting caught in thickets of technical explanation.

Recommendations and directives

In the first situation, we need the subjunctive for certain recommendations, proposals, requirements and directives. Because these ideas are hypothetical, existing for the moment only in the originator’s mind, they require the subjunctive mood.

There are two principal sentence patterns to look for here: (1) verbs such as recommend, urge, propose, suggest, insist, require, move followed by that; (2) it plus be followed by such adjectives as important, necessary, essential, crucial.

  • The candidate loudly urged that her opponent be disqualified for his sexist opinions.
  • This recipe recommends that the cook add juniper berries after the partridge has simmered for an hour.
  • It is vital that the contractor repaint our garage sunset pink to match the garden shed.
  • It is essential that the applicant read all the questions before answering them.

Of course, an economical writer will shrink the last two constructions. "The contractor must paint" and "the applicant has to read" are more concise, not to mention subjunctive-free.

In this first situation, forming the subjunctive is easy. Just use the base verb form, which is the infinitive (to be, to add, etc.) without the to.

Wishes and hypothetical conditions

In the second situation, we need the subjunctive to express wishes and hypothetical, contrary-to-fact conditions (usually introduced by if or as if).

  • On that cold, blustery day, Harvey wished he were in the Bahamas [he’s not] instead of in Flin Flon.
  • If I were a millionaire [I’m not], I would rent a villa in Spain and live slothfully ever after.
  • Meena often says that if she were Premier [she’s not], she would legislate a four-day work week.
  • To meet the deadline, the editor marked up the manuscript as if her life were at stake [it wasn’t].

Notice that in all these examples, the subjunctive verb is were. That’s no coincidence. With this second category of subjunctive, the only verb that changes into a recognizable subjunctive—that is, a non-indicative or "non-normal" form—is be, and the form it takes is always were. All other verbs stay in the usual indicative form: "Harvey wished he owned a condo in the Bahamas," "If I had a million dollars," "Meena often says that if she knew the Premier. . . ."

It’s important to note that if does not always introduce the subjunctive. Many if clauses set out conditions related to fact and reality rather than hypothesis:

  • If the party is interesting, we will stay longer than fifteen minutes.

    [statement about future actuality]

  • The reporter accused residents of voting without assessing the issues, but if that was true, it was because no one had explained the issues properly.

    [statement about past actuality]

  • If you had been there to hear Jason’s tone, you would understand why Jessica slapped him in the face.

    [statement about past actuality]

I propose that…

If you wish the subjunctive were more straightforward, you’re not alone. But here’s my modest proposal—that we accept the subjunctive for what it is: the verb form that conveys our uniquely human capacity to wish, to recommend, to hypothesize, to dream up new ideas and send them into the world.