The Subjunctive Mood | Definition & Examples

The subjunctive mood is a verb form used to refer to a hypothetical scenario or to express a wish, suggestion, or command (e.g., “I suggest you be quiet”).

The subjunctive is one of three grammatical moods in English, along with the indicative mood and the imperative mood.

There are two types of subjunctive verb forms. Verbs in the present subjunctive take the infinitive form (e.g., “be”), while verbs in the past subjunctive are identical to their simple past forms (e.g., “ran”).

Examples: Sentences in the subjunctive mood
I demand that everyone have an opportunity to speak.

Sharon insisted that she be notified of any problems.

If Jane were here, she could tell us what to do.

Note
The subjunctive mood is less common in UK English than US English. In UK English, the modal verb “should” is often used instead of a subjunctive verb (e.g., “Sharon insisted that she should be notified of any problems”).

What is the subjunctive mood?

The grammatical mood of a verb indicates the intention of a sentence. The subjunctive is one of three grammatical moods in English:

Grammatical mood Function Example
Indicative Express a fact

Ask a question

Express a condition

“Paris is a city.”

“Did you get my message?”

“You can take a break if you want to.”

Imperative Express a command or a request Stop talking.”
Subjunctive Express a wish, suggestion, demand, or hypothetical situation “I wish I were more intelligent.”

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The present subjunctive

The present subjunctive is typically used to refer to future actions or situations. Sentences in the present subjunctive mood have two clauses:

  • A main clause that contains either an indicative verb (e.g., “Kahn recommended”) or a phrase that starts with “it is” and contains an adjective (e.g., “It is important”)
  • A subordinate clause in the subjunctive mood (usually beginning with the conjunction “that”)

Verbs in the present subjunctive do not follow subject-verb agreement. Instead, they take the infinitive form for all persons (e.g., “be,” “eat,” “sing”).

Examples: The present subjunctive
The doctor suggested that she rest.

I propose that we take a short break.

It is advisable that the CEO resign.

Note
When the subject of a subjunctive verb is a personal pronoun, it’s always a subject pronoun (e.g., “I,” “he,” “she,” “we”).

  • He insisted me sit down.
  • He insisted I sit down.

Negatives

Negative constructions using the present subjunctive are formed by adding the adverb “not” before the subjunctive verb.

Examples: Negative present subjunctives
It’s vital that we not miss our flight.

The artist asks that you not touch the paintings.

The past subjunctive

The past subjunctive is typically used to refer to past or present actions or situations. Sentences in the past subjunctive mood contain two clauses:

  • A main clause in the indicative mood (often containing the verb “wish”)
  • A subordinate clause in the subjunctive mood (usually beginning with “that,” “if” or “as if”).

The past subjunctive form of the verb “be” is “were,” regardless of the subject (e.g., “I were,” “he were,” “she were”). All other verbs in the past subjunctive form are identical to their simple past tense forms (e.g., “I won”).

Examples: The past subjunctive
Karla acts as if she were famous.

I wish I lived in New York.

When the past subjunctive form is used in an “if” clause, the main clause usually contains a modal verb (normally “would,” but sometimes “should,” “might,” or “could”).

Example: Past subjunctive and modal verbs
If I were a millionaire, I would set up a charitable organization.

Subjunctive vs. indicative

The subjunctive mood is sometimes confused with conditional sentences in the indicative mood because both commonly use dependent “if” clauses (conditional clauses) and refer to hypothetical situations.

However, while conditional clauses in the indicative mood are used to refer to actions or situations that are possible or likely, conditional clauses in the subjunctive mood refer to situations that are impossible or unlikely.

Examples: Subjunctive vs. indicative mood
If I were you, I would buy a new car. [impossible scenario]

If he was late for work again, he probably got in trouble. [possible scenario]

Note
In everyday speech and informal writing, “was” is sometimes used instead of “were” for the first- and third-person singular forms in subjunctive clauses (e.g., “If I was you”). However, this should be avoided in formal contexts such as academic writing.

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Common phrases in the subjunctive mood

The subjunctive mood is also used in a range of expressions.

Expression Meaning
Be that as it may, I’m not helping you move house. Nevertheless
You can borrow my car if need be. If necessary
Suffice (it) to say, it was the worst vacation. It is enough to say
I’m here for you, come what may. Regardless of what happens
If we have to cancel the surprise party, so be it. I accept the situation

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Frequently asked questions

What is a subjunctive verb?

The subjunctive mood is used to refer to a hypothetical situation or to express a wish, suggestion, or command.

There are two types of subjunctive verb forms:

  • Verbs in the present subjunctive take the infinitive form (e.g., “I suggest he be fired”).
  • Verbs in the past subjunctive are identical to the simple past form of the verb (e.g., “I wish I had more money”).
What is the difference between the subjunctive and indicative mood?

The subjunctive mood is used to describe a hypothetical scenario or to express a wish, recommendation, or demand (e.g., “I insist he stop talking,” “I wish I were an astronaut”).

In contrast, the indicative mood is used to express a fact (e.g., “It is sunny today”).

Is it “if I were” or “if I was”?

You can use either “if I were” or “if I was,” depending on the context.

If I was is used in the indicative mood in a conditional sentence to refer to actions or situations that are likely or possible (e.g., “If I was rude, I should apologize”).

If I were is used for sentences in the subjunctive mood to refer to actions or situations that are unlikely or impossible (e.g., “If I were king, I’d live in a castle”).

Sources in this article

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This Scribbr article

Ryan, E. (2023, August 23). The Subjunctive Mood | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/verbs/subjunctive-mood/

Sources

Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford University Press.

Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.