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If Hairs Be Wires, Black Wires Grow on Her Head

You may have heard of the subjunctive mood. You may even be a little bit afraid of it. But did…

You may have heard of the subjunctive mood. You may even be a little bit afraid of it. But did you know that you use it all the time without likely even knowing it? Even as someone who’s pretty familiar with the rules of grammar, I was a little iffy on exactly what the subjunctive mood was. In fact, I was even iffy on what “mood” meant in a grammatical context. So let’s start there.

The Harbrace College Handbook (Thirteenth Edition) defines “mood” as follows:

Mood indicates speakers’ or writers’ attitudes about what they are saying. The indicative mood makes statements — a definite attitude; the imperative mood issues commands or requests — an insistent attitude; and the subjunctive mood expreses situations that are hypothetical or conditional — a tentative attitude.

So my first mistake with respect to the subjunctive has always been to consider it a mysterious, separate, rare manner of writing, when in fact it’s a superset of things like those statements “if I were X” that we’re all familiar with. That is, conditional statements, which we’re pretty comfortable using, are written in the subjunctive mood because they express tentativeness about what’s being said.

In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, usage expert Bryan A. Garner identifies six of the most common contexts in which we use the subjunctive mood (the list is his, the silly examples mine):

  1. conditions contrary to fact: if I were a hippopotamus… (you’re not and there’s no chance you could be, so it’s contrary to fact)
  2. suppositions: if I were to lock myself in the freezer, I might be cold (factually possible but not certain; maybe you’re wearing a coat in there)
  3. wishes: I wish that I weren’t locked in this darned freezer with no coat
  4. demands: I insisted that he give me all his money (the relevant subjunctive verb here is “he give,” which would normally be “he gives”)
  5. suggestions: I suggested that he consider giving me all his money (the relevant subjunctive verb here is “he consider,” which would normally be “he considers”)
  6. statements of necessity: It’s essential that he get me out of this freezer (“he get” rather than “he gets”)

The first three types are simple enough to understand. They represent things that may or may not be factually true (the fancy word for this is “counterfactual”), and if part of the aim of the writing or speech is to convey information about that uncertainty, then the subjunctive mood is called for. The second three can be a little confusing, since there seems to be some overlap with the imperative mood. To me, the distinction seems to be that the imperative mood is itself the act of commanding while the subjunctive in these cases refers at a distance to the act of commanding.

Perceptive readers will have noticed that the verb forms also happen to differ between the first three and second three examples. In the first three, the third-person form of the verb “to be” (so “were”) is used even with the first-person subject, while in the second three, the first-person form of the verb is used even with the third-person subject (which by the way is how you construct a subjunctive verb). This points to something of a controversy wherein some claim that these counterfactual uses are something fun called the “the irrealis form of the copula” rather than the true subjunctive. But for our purposes, it’s fine to consider these the subjunctive, as the objections are pretty technical and academic.

Curiously, Harbrace identifies the subjunctive as rare, though in my experience, clauses like “if I were X” are very common indeed. And then there are some fixed phrases dotted frequently through our usage that we say without even thinking that happen to be in the subjunctive mood, such as “be that as it may,” “so be it,” “as it were,” and “God bless you.”

This last one is especially fun, for if you think about it as if it were a non-subjunctive utterance, it really makes no sense. Are you addressing God but then oddly asking him to bless someone? If so, shouldn’t it be “God, bless her“? But then why do we say it to the sneezing person rather than to the sky? Or do we just assume that there’s an implied “I hope” at the beginning of the sentence and a weird lapse in subject-verb agreement? Well, it turns out that there’s an implied “May” at the beginning and that because the phrase expresses a hope rather than something definite or imperative, we use the subjunctive form of the verb, in this case the singular present “bless.”

Probably the most important takeaway here is that if you’re ever caught using one of the counterfactual sentences (“if I were X”) and don’t know whether to use “if I were” or “if I was,” it’s actually probably fine to use either, but the subjunctive form (“were”) is the one that’ll keep the grammar teachers off your back. As always in these matters of tricky usage, there’s something of a tradeoff for using the “correct” form, as the rest of the world, composed of non-grammar teachers, may think you snooty or fussy if you insist on the traditional subjunctive forms.

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  1. if I were a judge judging this as an entry to the competition “define moods in Grammer” I (I wish for such a thing to happen),I would prevail upon the other judges that this blog be given the first prize. Since I am not a judge,nor is there any such competition; let me just say that this really clarifies for me the meaning of “iffy” thing-subjunctive mood

    loved it.

      1. Did you read what I wrote? My works are enjoyed around the world. I would sure like some English professional to read some of my writings. I know they my hurt you because of the grammar and stuff but would you read them with a grain of salt or a teaspoon of sugar? You really will enjoy the content and measure me not by my lack of English skills. Besides, the U.S. is 27th in the world of Education and still the riches.

        Read my autobiography on my blog and see the success I had as a Black man before I got a college education. When I got a college education then I could not get a job.Strange, they said my credit is bad, or something my manager of 9 years said, but at least I did not hear, “Sorry, we can’t hire you. You don’t have any experience.” By that time I had 20 years of experience,,

        My blogs. http://www.chaplaiwinston.blogspot.com

  2. If I were to suggest that you write at more length in future, it would only be out of love for your mode of expression and not to request that you make the content more clear.

  3. If there were such a category, my nomination for best use of subjunctive mood in a song would be Loudon Wainwright’s “I Wish I was A Lesbian” (note his use of “was” instead of “were” to avoid seeming snooty).

  4. Were it not for my twelfth-grade English teacher, I might still be unaware that one ought to say “If I were” instead of “If I was”! Might I offer my congratulations on this clear and helpful explanation?

    Y’know, at least in American English, the subjunctive has the serious drawback of sounding as pompous as that last paragraph. Alas, grammar.

  5. Thanks for this post! I’m so thankful that I grew up when grammar mattered, and that I learned it well. It has helped me learn advanced grammar in Italian, which is mind boggling at times. The subjunctive is so beautiful in Italian but sadly it is being used less and less, and my teacher fears that it will be obsolete within a couple of years. The complexities of grammar are diminishing everywhere…maybe we can keep them alive in our blogs!

  6. As an English, Journalism, Creative Writing teacher for many, many, many years, I salute you, Daryl. You have done a masterful job here, giving a straightforward and easy-to-understand explanation of a concept that baffles thousands of people out there. Congratulations!

    1. hi! I ought to thank my English professor…she used Come What May/
      Patti Labelle as an example (wish i was a bird)…and now, Daryl for the reminder…iʻm one less baffled person, maʻam ;-)

  7. I caught on to the subjunctive in high school Spanish. I don’t think I’ve ever been given a clear explanation of its workings in English until now. Thank you!

  8. Psychologist Jerome Bruner identifies the subjunctive as what opens literary texts to readers – through implication and gap the imagination is activated and therefore the reader performs imagining rather than passively receives – nice post, thank you

  9. You missed out the Optative mood, used to express a desire for the future as in “So help me God!” Have a look in Fowler’s MEU, Birchfield’s edition.

    -Smartypants.

    1. Wow, neither the Harbrace nor Garner mention the optative mood, and the things I’ve found online referring to it suggest either that it’s not a pure mood in English or that it’s kind of a dicey thing (or maybe it’s that it’s a linguistic thing more than a strictly grammatical one?). At any rate, I plead ignorance. Optative seems to be sort of a hybrid of imperative and subjunctive. I don’t have the Fowler, alas, but I’m grateful for the correction here.

      1. I am sorry, I was just showing off. Even Fowler says it is a phenomenon in Ancient Greek, but only suggested in a few English phrases. I would like you to get Fowler, the third edition, as the differences between BrE and AmE interest me. You could import it, perhaps. I see the first edition is on Kindle, but that is 1926. The last revision was 2004.

      2. Well I’m glad you showed off, seriously. I like learning these sorts of things. It’s sort of deplorable that I don’t have Fowler, but that’s what wish lists are for, and I’ll add it to mine right away. I do tend to have an American bias when writing these posts, and I’ve been called out on it a time or two.

  10. Great article! I was waiting for you to mention “If I were” vs “If I was”…. Perhaps, it’s my French background, but the “If I was” still hurts my ears and I will stick to the “If I were” form. :)

    1. An interesting thing I learned about “if I were” vs. “if I was” is that it’s not a recent phenomenon. It’s tempting for us to say “grammar has gone to hell in recent years” and such things, but “if I was” in place of the standard subjunctive construction dates back to at least 1800 and even overtook “if I were” as the more frequent usage between 1860 and 1875 or so. Weird, huh?

    2. I think it’s worth noting that if I was isn’t always bad, even if you insist on being a purist about the subjunctive. It has a place in past conditional statements:

      I used to have immune problems and got sick a lot, but my boss was great…
      If I was feeling sick, then he let me work from home.
      *If I were feeling sick, then he let me work from home.

      1. I believe when the “if…then…” clause represents a certainty, then you would say “If I was” and not “If I were”. For example, “If I was late for school, I would get detention”, but “If I were taller, I would have been a model” (a supposition).

  11. Statements of necessity: It’s essential that he get me out of this freezer (“he get” rather than “he gets””
    I have read both ways and heard it both ways… wow this gets a bit much…This makes us too responsible for perfectionism as a writer… painfully so… I will go scream in my pillow now.!!

    1. So the issue here is that because most of our third-person subjects require third-person verbs, people think that “he get” sounds wrong, so they “correct” to “he gets,” which is in fact grammatically wrong. There are all kinds of ways in which people hypercorrect their grammar and actually make it incorrect, and it’s little wonder, with so many rules that for most of us don’t actually make a terribly meaningful difference.

  12. As a baby boomer, I grew up with the subjunctive and when I studied Spanish, I came to love it even more, as if it were the lover I had longed for. It occurs everywhere:

    If I Were a Carpenter by Tim Hardin
    If I were a carpenter
    And you were a lady,
    Would you marry me anyway?
    Would you have my baby?
    If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof
    If I were a rich man,
    Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.
    All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
    If I were a wealthy man.
    I wouldn’t have to work hard.
    Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
    If I were a biddy biddy rich,
    Idle-diddle-daidle-daidle man.

    Film: If I Were King starring Ronald Coleman and featuring Basil Ratbone

    The If-You-Were Poems by Charles Ghigna
    If you were a shining star
    And I were your midnight,
    I’d let you shine above me,
    You’d be my only light.

  13. “If Hairs Be Wires, Black Wires Grow on Her Head” This is from Shakespeare’s sonnet 130. I immediately recognized it because the “love of my life” had me recite it. I have never read Shakespeare before. “The love of my life” recited, “How do I love the? Let me count the ways, sonnet 43.

    I am a self-published author with 13 books to my credit. Some of my books and writings are on my blog where I have been visited by over a dozen major countries. To what do I owe the credit.

    I have not been college educated as to the nuances of writing. I understand from reading it what the subjunctive mood is but like 90% of my writings I will forget what I wrote. It is important that I write thoughts down.

    I have a degree in Bible. It took me twelve years to graduate pat time. I also took communication classes at Kaplan Online University. The semesters were only 10 week and I maintained a “A” average.

    I said all this to say what? Oh, I am a computer software analyst, anal retentive, and have a steel trap mind. I hope I don’t insult you but educate you, I have a problem with the study of written English. Being technical you miss the mark of critical thinking.

    Like I said I have never read Shakespeare before. We record my style of speaking to my computer. I am a black man. After reading sonnet 130 I discovered that Shakespeare was a black man, having a white wife and referring to his mistress of hairs of wire, a black woman.

    You see English specialist, by the way is not the English of England, Shakespeare, or King James English, always miss the mark. They are so busy grading papers they don’t study the content of the papers.

    By the way a Bible college teacher said I write in the Hebrew poetic fashion. We shared notes.

  14. Your explanations were very clear. Thank you for this post! Thankfully we studied this in Spanish class and it has stuck with me. Sadly, I hear the tense used less and less all the time.

  15. I first encountered the subjunctive tense when I was studying a foreign language (Spanish) back in high school. It seemed so unsurmountable at the time, but as you say, we speak this way all the time (“If I were”, etc.). Good grammar refresher post!

  16. Thanks so much for the clarification, and the easy, clear examples. As an English teacher in Spain, the topic of subjunctives is often a source of confusion for me (learning Spanish, which has its own separate subjuntive verb tense) and my students (who feel lost without this extra tense).
    Ah, the richness and subtlety of language!

  17. If I were to have been included in the genesis of this thread/blog/post, I would have loved to have given it the dedication of attention it truly deserves… I believe anything worth saying, is worth having the opportunity to have been said properly, with conviction…
    If I was to dismiss this topic, I might could have not even left a message, and never knowledge the difference…
    Dew ewe sea watt eye yam try ying two dew, hear?
    Snot all ways easy too get yore point a cross wen yew no that the spell cheque will make Miss Pellings write even wile using homophones, heterographs, and the like…

  18. It’s also useful to note that the way we write and the way we speak English are different. In spoken English, we usually say, I wish I was her; but in written English, writers usually use I wish I were. And either way, it’s context that matters. If the line is a 16 year old character’s line, he/she would more likely say I wish I was…

    But then, I’m a grammar Geek. So there it is.

  19. I find subjunctive mood quite useful to create intrigue in fiction writing. I used it quite a bit in my latest post for my fictional blog.
    http://creepypants.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/episode-2-branding
    Could past actions have been wise? What if it happened another way? By using the subjunctive mood with vague references to past events, I hope that the reader is drawn in. The reader should ask “What happened?” and hopefully want to learn more. I hope I used it well and would love to read others’ examples.