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 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):
- 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)
- 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)
- wishes: I wish that I weren’t locked in this darned freezer with no coat
- demands: I insisted that he give me all his money (the relevant subjunctive verb here is “he give,” which would normally be “he gives”)
- 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”)
- 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.