How Do I Use the Subjunctive?

Your Highness:

As part of my job in a large corporation, I must communicate in writing with my colleagues and customers. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, holding as I do a degree from a fancy business school and all, but here goes: When it comes to grammar, I’ve been faking it for 34 years. I mean, I’m not hopeless. I can write a sentence. I can identify a noun and a verb. But, for example, I wouldn’t recognize the subjunctive if it friended me on Facebook. I’m tired of living a lie. Might you shed some light on the topic?

My dear Subject,

You are not alone. Would that were the case. But in fact, most educated Americans are unclear on how to use the subjunctive, or even what the term means—even as they use it every day. Here are some guidelines that may help you in your writing and—dare I say it—in your daily life.

  • Most often, the question of the subjunctive arises when one is dealing with conditional occurrences—things that might (or might not) happen or have happened.
  • In French, the subjunctive is a verb tense. In English, in contrast, it is a “mood” that can be conveyed by several tenses. In her brilliant and amusing book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, Patricia T. O’Conner explains:

    The verb in a conditional clause has an attitude: that is, it takes on different forms, or “moods,” depending on the speaker’s attitude or intention toward what’s being said. When the clause states a condition that’s contrary to fact, the verb is in the subjunctive mood (If I were you…). When the clause states a condition that may be true, the verb is in the indicative mood (If I was late…).

So, as my darling child explained to her governess the other day, “If Mummy were here, she would let me have another cookie.” (I was not there; I was in the garden.) The fact that the second half of her statement was actually contrary to fact did not stop me from beaming with pride when it was quoted to me; the child is a true grammar prodigy.

  • Note that in American English, the subjunctive may also be indicated by a shift in tense. According to the frequently impolite but in this case accurate Wikipedia:

    “They insisted that he go to chapel every morning” means that they were requiring or demanding him to go to chapel. However, “They insisted that he went to chapel every morning” means they are reasserting the statement that, in the past, he did attend chapel every morning.

Just as one Molière character was shocked to learn that for his entire life he had been “speaking prose without knowing it,” you, my dear subject, have been using the subjunctive—and the conditional and the indicative—all along. Now you have the tools to bend them to your will. Use that power wisely and graciously, and you may go far indeed.

Yours precisely,
The Grammar Queen

By Lisa Stonestreet