Does English have a subjunctive mood?

Many creatures on earth are able to communicate with each other in various ways. Dogs wag their tails when they are happy, and cats purr. Bees can tell each other in which direction to search for nectar. However, animal communication is very limited. For example, bees can only communicate to other bees that there is a source of nectar at a certain distance in a certain direction. Animals can only ‘talk’ about the observable world, here and now. What they cannot do is ‘talk’ about the past or future, or about hypothetical or desirable situations. Thus a bee cannot ‘tell’ another bee that there was, might be, or will be some nectar nearby. Human beings – the only creatures who have language at their disposal to communicate – can talk about anything, including the past, the future and hypothetical situations. Typically, when we talk about possible, desirable, or hypothetical situations in English we use modal verbs such as can/could, may/might, will/would, shall/should, and must. So we can say, for example:

  • Peter may be in his room.

to express the possibility that he is there. Or we can say:

  • Peter must see his teacher.

to express an obligation imposed on Peter. Another way of talking about possible, desirable, or hypothetical situations is by using what many grammars call a present subjunctive verb, as in this example:

  • It is necessary that Peter see his teacher.

What makes the italicised verb special is that it does not have the third person singular –s ending that we find in declarative clauses that contain a present tense verb e.g.

  • Every day Peter sees his teacher.

Many languages have special verb forms for the subjunctive. For example in French we say:

  • Il est impératif que tu viennes. (‘It is imperative that you come.’)

with the subjunctive verb form viennes, rather than:

  • Il est impératif que tu viens.

which contains the indicative verb form viens. The question now arises whether it makes sense to say that English has subjunctive verb forms in the same way that French does. Many grammar books will tell you that it does. However, if you think about it you will realize that, unlike French, English has no special dedicated ‘present subjunctive endings’ on the verb in examples such as the one cited above. Therefore, English has no subjunctive mood. In fact, the form of the verb is simply the base form (sometimes also called the plain form), that we also find in sentences where infinitives are used (for example, I went to see my cousin at the weekend). In view of this it makes more sense to speak of subjunctive clauses than of subjunctive verb forms. We can then say that the clause that Peter see his teacher in the example sentence is a subjunctive clause expressing an obligation imposed on Peter. Subjunctive clauses often occur after adjectives such as advisable, crucial, vital, necessary, imperative, etc., and are more common in American English than in British English. In British English it is also perfectly possible and acceptable to say:

  • It is necessary that Peter sees his teacher.

This example contains a declarative clause after necessary. Americans tend to find this odd. What about the ‘past subjunctive’? Again, English has no special ‘past subjunctive verb endings’, so that we must conclude that English also has no past subjunctive verb forms. There’s one exception, though, and this is when we use were in an example like the following:

  • I wish he were more helpful.

This use of were is a relic of the past subjunctive. We now also frequently hear:

  • I wish he was more helpful.

which is perfectly grammatical. But wait, I hear you say, the National Curriculum does recognise a subjunctive for English, because in the Statutory Requirements for Years 5 and 6 we read that students must be able to recognise “vocabulary and structures that are appropriate for formal speech and writing, including subjunctive forms”. What’s more, there is a Glossary entry for ‘subjunctive’:

In some languages, the inflections of a verb include a large range of special forms which are used typically in subordinate clauses, and are called ‘subjunctives’. English has very few such forms and those it has tend to be used in rather formal styles.

  • The school requires that all pupils be honest.
  • The school rules demand that pupils not enter the gym at lunchtime.
  • If Zoë were the class president, things would be much better.

Reliable sources tell me that the reason that the subjunctive is part of the NC is that Michael Gove insisted it be there (or ‘insisted it is there’; take your pick!).

If you’re a Year 5 or Year 6 primary teacher, then you’ll need to tell your students about the subjunctive, as a question may appear in the Year 6 GPaS (SPaG) Test about it, but for the rest of us, we can relax about the subjunctive!

(A slightly different version of this blog post previously appeared on the Oxford Words Blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/02/does-english-have-subjunctive/)

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4 thoughts on “Does English have a subjunctive mood?

  1. Hi Bas,

    Wouldn’t the English “modal past” be the nearest equivalent to the French “subjunctive”? Where the past tense triggered by some form of pressure (advice) has no temporal value at all… in which case the use of “were” in your example would not be an exception.

    – it is high time you went to bed – il est grand temps que tu ailles au lit
    – I suggest you did your homework now – je te suggère de faire tes devoirs maintenant
    = je suggère que tu fasses tes devoirs maintenant
    – I would insist you came earlier next time – J’insisterais (pour) que tu viennes plus tôt la prochaine fois

    The same would apply to the modal SHALL becoming SHOULD once used in its past tense form.

    – You should do it nonetheless – il faudrait que tu le fasses quand même = tu devrais le faire…
    – I insist you should do it – j’insisterais (pour) que tu le fasses

    Apologies for the cheekiness of my remark…

    With kind regards (and great admiration for your blog!)

    Yann

    Like

    • Hi Yann,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree with most of what you say, though note that English, unlike French, has no dedicated subjunctive inflections, hence no subjunctive mood. The use of ‘were’ is an exception in the sense that it could with reason be called a subjunctive verb form, though only as a relic. Instead we often use ‘was’ as a modal past verb form. I agree that ‘were’ has ‘no temporal value’ as you put it.

      Best,

      Bas

      Like

  2. Pingback: Grammar in schools: some Q&As and a plea | GRAMMARIANISM

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