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Subjunctive

The subjunctive mood exists in many languages, but its degree of use differs greatly from language to language.  In Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Italian, it is used more commonly.  However, in English, it is used mainly for formal occasions and is found more often in American English than British English, where we frequently use other constructions of the verb, e.g. modal auxiliaries + infinitive or the infinitive on its own. 

Verbs in the subjunctive mood are used to show expression of a hypothetical situation or one where something is demanded, recommended, wished or expected. The following examples show some of the different structures we can use for the subjunctive mood, which will be explained below.

1.    If I were to leave, I would miss the final speech.  (subordinate ‘if’ clause expressing a hypothetical situation)
2.    The directors recommend that he attend the hearing. (subordinate ‘that’ clause containing base infinitive form of the verb)
3.    The directors recommend that he not attend the hearing.  (subordinate ‘that’ clause containing negative + base infinitive form of the verb)
4.    I would suggest that you be ready for the changes.  (subordinate ‘that’ clause containing base infinitive form of the verb ‘to be’)
5.    It is important that staff be waiting outside for their arrival.  (subordinate ‘that’ clause containing continuous form)
6.    They expect that the work be completed by Friday.  (subordinate ‘that’ clause containing passive form)

1.     If I were to leave, I would miss the final speech. 
The subjunctive mood can be used in subordinate clauses introduced by ‘if’, which express a hypothetical situation.  In these structures, the first and third person singular past form ‘was’ is changed to ‘were’.
  • If he were a better swimmer, he would have won the race.
  • If I were Minister for education, I would not require eleven year olds to master the subjunctive.
2.     The directors recommend that he attend the hearing.
The subjunctive can be used to express obligation, requirement, desire or compulsion when the sentence contains a subordinate (nominal) clause introduced by ‘that’.  To structure the subjunctive in these situations, the third person singular verb does not take the ‘s’ suffix.  This is the same form as the base infinitive of the verb, i.e. ‘to attend’ would be the infinitive form; the base infinitive form does not include the word ‘to’.  
  • The headmaster requested that the boy change his attitude. 
  • The H&S Officer recommended that the manager reconsider the advice he gives.

3.     The directors recommend that he not attend the hearing
The structures explained in 2. can also be formed in the negative.

4.     I would suggest that you be ready for the changes.
Again, this is a subordinate ‘that’ clause which uses the base infinitive form of the verb.  Children will probably only have come across ‘be’ used on its own in a verb position when they are forming a command (Be ready at three!).  They may not even recognise that ‘be’ is related to ‘was’ and ‘were’, so using this particular verb in subjunctive mood could require some explaining.

5.     It is important that staff be waiting outside for their arrival. 
The continuous form can also be used in the subjunctive, but is constructed by using the bare infinitive ‘be’ with the present participle, rather than the ‘is/was/are/were’ auxiliaries that we normally use with continuous forms.

6.     They expect that the work be completed by Friday. 
In this type of subjunctive construction, when the verb is required in the passive voice, the bare infinitive ‘be’ is again used as the auxiliary verb rather than the more familiar auxiliaries ‘is/was/are/were’.  Of course we could also write this sentence without using the subjunctive:
  • They expect that the work should be completed by Friday. (modal verb phrase)
  • They expect that the work will be completed by Friday.  (modal verb phrase)
  • They expect the work to be completed by Friday. (verb phrase formed by infinitive + past participle)
Other examples of passive use of the subjunctive are:
  • The team managers agreed that the match be postponed.
  • The judge demanded that the prisoner be removed from Court.
All the examples above can be written in different ways which don’t use the subjunctive.  Modern English has a wide range of modal auxiliary verbs which we can use to express hypothetical situations, obligations, desires and recommendations, so use of the subjunctive mood is optional and may well sound rather odd to some people.  As our language changes, use of the subjunctive may reduce further, which will only increase the number of people who will find this construction ‘strange to the ear’.

There is one last point to make about the subjunctive.  We often come across it in fixed expressions.  The fact that these are fixed shows the length of time they have existed in our language and does rather reinforce the view that the subjunctive mood is slightly archaic.  However, it is worth recognising these for what they are, so I list a few below.  You will note the use of ‘that’ clauses and bare infinitives, as in the more modern examples above.
  • God save the Queen!
  • Be that as it may …
  • Heaven forbid that …
  • Come what may, I will persevere.

2 comments:

  1. thank you for the explanations. I always find this a bit of a minefield to try and teach.

    Do you have any great ideas of practical ways of helping explain this to a non confident group of Y6?

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    1. To be honest, I'm not sure the subjunctive is something we should be teaching to non-confident year 6 children! There are many other more useful aspects of grammar which will help them improve their writing. Certainly any children who are not secure with subject-verb agreement should focus on that first. Whole class teaching on the subjunctive may therefore not be appropriate.

      I would introduce it to more able writers in guided sessions by finding examples of the 'if/were' structure in formal texts and discussing what is different about the structure. Then explain how it is used and ask them orally to experiment with ideas, reinforcing the idea of only using in a formal context.

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