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A Word, Please: She's in a subjunctive kind of mood

January 07, 2012

Every time I hear someone say, “If I were you” or “I wish I were going,” it always surprises me. When I hear people say things like, “It’s crucial you be there,” I’m even more surprised.

Chances are, if you asked these people why they used “were” instead of “was” or “be” instead of “are,” many couldn’t tell you. If you asked them to explain the subjunctive mood, most couldn’t tell you that, either.

Yet without even fully understanding the subjunctive, people use it correctly all the time.

It’s when we stop to think about it that we can get messed up: For example, if it’s correct to say “I was going,” why do we suddenly change “was” to “were” the minute we make it a wish or an if? Similarly, if we use “are” in “you are there,” why would we change it to “be” if tacked “it’s crucial” on front of the sentence?

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The reason is that those ifs, wishes, and statements of necessity actually cause a mood change in the sentence. Sentences come in three moods. The indicative is the most common mood. It refers to simple statements like “I am here” and “you are going.” The imperative mood means commands: “Get my slippers.” “Eat more vegetables.”

The only other mood in the English language, the subjunctive, is little understood and half-dead. It’s undergoing a transition from a time when it was much more common in our language, hence the way the word “be” can change a normal sentence into pirate talk: “We be setting sail, matey.”

If you don’t want to learn the subjunctive, you don’t have to. Making your verbs conform to subjunctive forms is often optional and the rest of the time it comes naturally. But if you’ve ever wondered how “I was here” and “He is on time” become “If I were here” and “It’s crucial he be on time,” here’s how it works.

The subjunctive mood, according to “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” describes any sentence with conditions contrary to fact, including suppositions (if I were taller) and wishes (I wish I were taller), as well as demands (I demand he go now), suggestions (I suggest he go now) or statements of necessity (It’s crucial he go now).

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