Grammar Minute: Subjunctive Mood

I wasn’t going to write about the use of subjunctive mood, but I’m finally fed up. The clincher came when I saw one of those awesome someecards, about grammar, that used improper grammar. Specifically, it misused subjunctive mood. Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal that a relatively obscure grammar item wasn’t used perfectly. However, it stood out given the card was a poke at grammar. Sadly, I didn’t track it, and by the time I decided to write about it, I could no longer find it. Maybe they pulled it to correct it. In any case, it left enough of a mark in my grammar guerrilla psyche that I decided to write about it.

Most days I wonder if they teach this in school at all. Now, in fairness, no one taught it to me in my English classes either. My mother and grandmother corrected me into understanding its use. It wasn’t until I studied Spanish that anyone taught me the underlying principle well enough that I could explain it. If only it were emphasized in school.

That italicized word in the previous sentence, were, is the subjunctive mood in action. Bow before it.

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Incorrect: it should read “If I were gay, you’re the first person I’d gay marry if I weren’t afraid of commitment.”
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Correct: All too often, people would say, “… if she was a season …”
Nailed it!
Nailed it! Of course, subjunctive doesn’t really affect 2nd person.

I won’t try to show all the intricacies in this post, but in summary, subjunctive mood is the verb form that is used to express a command, wish, suggestion, or condition that is contrary to fact. In Spanish, for instance, the examples used by our teacher to emphasize the use were sentences beginning with “Ojala,” which roughly translates as “If only.” (It’s more literally “May Allah grant” or something like it.) Similar to what Mrs. McCracken taught me in Spanish class, in English, a sentence that begins with “if” is a clue that subjunctive may be coming. You will also only find subjunctive in English in subordinate clauses.

Subjunctive only affects the third person singular of most verbs and the verb to be. To be usage is the most common error. Using subjunctive for verbs other than to be is simple. The subjunctive for the present tense third person singular drops the -s or -es so that it looks and sounds like the present tense for everything else.

Example:

Ghetto: He demanded the Bitch brings his money.
Correct: He demanded that his subordinate bring his money.

Using subjunctive with forms of the verb “to be.”

I’ll focus on this example, because it’s 1) the most common, and 2) the one that secretly makes you sound like ghetto when you get it wrong. (You’re welcome; feel the love.) As cited on englishplus.com, (which has the best, simplest tutelage I’ve found):

“The subjunctive mood of the verb to be is be in the present tense and were in the past tense, regardless of what the subject is.”

Ghetto: If I was you, I would shut up(Correct Response: “If you were me, you’d know how to speak properly.”)
Correct: If I were you, I would shut up.

More examples of subjunctive mood:

_ “He was annoying me with his poor grammar.” (Not subjunctive – this is a true condition, not contrary to fact.)
— “If he were smarter, I wouldn’t be correcting his stupid grammar.” (Subjunctive – he is not smarter, so subjunctive applies.)
— It is mandatory that he come at once. (Subjunctive – this is command, creating a state that does not yet exist — he has not yet come.)

Grammar Guerilla out!
Grammar Guerilla out!

8 Comments

  1. Mary Quallo says:

    I just love your grammar lessons. This one is particularly special because you show a wonderful photo of the Grammar Guerrilla. The Great Apes are a pet project of mine. Thank you for giving them the dignity they deserve. Keep writing Bill, I’m still reading. Mary

    1. He almost killed me when I tried to put the silly hat on him. 🙂 Actually, I love gorillas.

  2. thanks for sharing! I’ve taught a number of Spanish classes and my students are always stunned when I mention we have the subjunctive in English too. We’re never taught to use it in school!

    1. Unless things changed from when I was in school (other than the invention of fire) it’s because they don’t know. My senior year in high school, our English teacher asked me to teach her this on the DL.

        1. She was a newbie teacher.

  3. EagleAye says:

    Thanks for the lesson. I’d really hate to piss off a 600 pound grammar gorilla with incorrect subjunctive mood.

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