Stop!…Grammar Time: In the (Subjunctive) Mood

Let’s face it, one of the pleasures of knowing grammar is a feeling of mastery. That you get language, that you get how to use it, and that you get to pass quiet judgment on those who do not. And that you get to use sentence fragments because knowing that you are writing a sentence fragment excuses the sentence fragment post hoc.

But you don’t want to just know the difference between its/it’s and their/there and your/you’re; you want to know the deep mystery and black magic of grammar. You want to judge the judgers.

Alright, so here’s a grammatical gavel you can wield: the subjunctive mood.

What is a mood, you ask? (interrogative mood, asks questions). I’ll show you (indicative mood, states facts). Listen up (imperative mood, gives commands).

Different moods, which describe different verb usages, perform different tasks. (“Voice” describes the agent of the verb. All sentences have both a voice and a mood. Just like Whitney Houston.)

Those three moods I just parenthetically defined are by far the most common. It’s the least common mood that causes the most trouble–the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive mood expresses something that is contrary to fact. You musical theaters have an easy way to remember the correct use of the subjunctive, courtesy of an impoverished Jewish milkman. The lyrics “if I were a rich man” indicates that the rest of the sentence would be true if the first part were true (in logic, this is called a conditional).

If I were X, I would be Y.

The most common mistake is “If I was X, I would be Y.” This actually makes more sense, since the I is singular and the singular simple past is “was.” So why the difference?

Well, there is some debate about this, but the dominant theory about why we use “were” connects our modern subjunctive with a special verb tense in Old English that was reserved for hopes, wants, and desires. How cool is that? The non-standard usage of “were” in the subjunctive is some weird descendant of that tense.

The second most common mistake with the subjunctive mood omits a helping verb before the past tense form of the main verb.

Correct: It would have been better if I had given the cop my license and registration rather than the middle finger.

Incorrect: It would have been better if I gave the cop and my license and registration rather than the middle finger.

The tricky part about the the above example is that it is a conditional that gives the consequent (have been better) before the antecedent (If I had given). This trips us up, as the mood isn’t established until the second half of the sentence, and we have all been taught not to change tenses mid-sentence. In this case, the indication of the subjunctive feels to us like a tense shift, so we muck it all up. But not for lack of trying.

Alright, so now you are grammatically superior to 90% of the population when it comes to the subjunctive. But let’s not stop there.

There is a special case of the subjunctive called the man dative subjunctive that kinda blend the declarative mood and the subjunctive mood.

An example:

I require that all cupcakes be chocolate.

Because I am mandating that some condition that is not the case become the case, this is a subjunctive form.

And here’s one more example of the subjunctive, one that explains some familiar, seemingly grammatically incorrect sayings.

You’ve heard these:

God bless America.
Heaven forbid.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

In each example, there is an uninflected verb and a third-person subject, which isn’t usually cricket. But in these specific cases, the subjunctive (the indication is that God isn’t currently blessing America, interestingly). These are called formulaic subjunctives, which is grammarian speak for “we have no idea where these came from.”

And now you understand the subjunctive mood better than 99.9% of English-speaking adults. You are the .1%.

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