Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Exploring grammar - the Subjunctive

You will occasionally hear or read about the Subjunctive, although in British English (BrE) we don't use it very often. And because we don't use it much, I sometimes wonder if we actually know what its forms are. I'm being disingenuous here of course, by 'we' I mean 'I'.
Of course we know about 'If I were ...' and 'If he were ...', but could we say what all the other forms are? For us Brits it's largely academic, but I thought it would be fun to find out. In fact it turns out to be pretty simple. Please see the links section below for my sources. It should be noted that Subjunctive seems to be used rather more often in American English (AmE) than in British English (BrE).
These notes are not meant to be a lesson, nor a definitive explanation of the Subjunctive, but rather an exploration of what I understand to be the principles, with lots of examples.
There are no exercises associated with this post, but I hope to do some separate exercises on the Subjunctive a bit later.
In many languages students study there own grammar with the help of tables, and I think a table would be appropriate here, comparing Indicative ('normal' tenses) and Subjunctive forms.

Simple aspect

Subjunctive is most often used in two tenses, Present Simple and Past Simple.
Present SimpleIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
Iambe
he, she, itisbe
we, you, theyarebe
other verbs,eg: work
I, we, you, theyworkwork
he, she, itworkswork
Past SimpleIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, itwaswere
we, you, theywerewere
other verbs,eg: work
I, he, she, itworkedworked
we, you, theyworkedworked

Variations from the Indicative in simple tenses

As you can see, the Subjunctive is usually identical to the indicative ('normal' verb forms), the only differences (highlighted in red) being:
  1. to be - present - all persons = be (negative = not be)
  2. other verbs - present - 3rd person singular (he, she, it) = 1st form
  3. to be - past - 1st and 3rd persons singular = were
  4. other verbs - present - negatives in all persons = not + 1st form eg: not work

The Subjunctive in English has these main uses:

    In both British and American English
  1. Past Subjunctive with Second Conditional
  2. In certain fixed phrases

  3. Mainly in American English, and in more formal British English
  4. Present Subjunctive with (that) clauses after certain verbs
  5. Present Subjunctive with (that) clauses after It is + certain adjectives
  6. Present Subjunctive after certain nouns + that

1. Past Subjunctive with Second Conditional

Traditionally we used Past Subjunctive in Second Conditionals and related structures like If Only and I wish. But, with one exception, Past Subjunctive is identical to Past Simple. So we now tend to talk about forming Second Conditionals with Past Simple (rather than Past Subjunctive).
If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd give up my job.
I would be very surprised if he didn't come to the party.
The only usual exception being were instead of was.
If I were in your shoes, I'd take job.
I would be very surprised if he were married.
If only she were younger.
I wish I were in Egypt.
In British English (and perhaps also in American English - see the comments in the dicussion section below) this use is declining somewhat, and people are increasingly using Past Simple (Indicative) across the board. But some people still consider that were is the only correct usage (see discussion below).
  • If I was in your shoes, I'd take job.
  • I would be very surprised if he was married.
  • If only she was younger.
  • I wish I was in Egypt (Egypt Tourist Authority Advertisement).
But I'm wondering about negatives. Perhaps a stickler for Subjunctive would rather say:
I would be very surprised if he were not to come to the party.

2. Fixed expressions

If I were you
If need beIf necessary
If truth be toldTo tell the truth
Come what mayWhatever happens
Come Monday, Come SeptemberWhen it arrives
Be that is it may...That may be true, but ...
If ... , (then) so be it.If that's the case, we'll just have to live with it.
... , as it were..., in a manner of speaking
Perish the thoughtI should certainly hope not
Heaven forbid!I should certainly hope not
Heaven help us!Nobody else will
Suffice it to say ...All I need to say is ...
Far be it from me to (disagree/criticise) ... but I'm going to anyway
(God) bless you.(when someone sneezes)
God save the Queen!
Long live the bride and groom!

3. Present Subjunctive with (that) clauses after certain verbs indicating suppositions, wishes or commands (this usually occurs only in American English or very formal British English)

advise, ask, command, demand, desire, insist, propose, recommend, request, suggest, urge
The Subjunctive is only noticeable in the verb to be (and Passives), in the 3rd person singular of other verbs and in negatives.
  • He asks that we be ready to leave at eight.
  • He recommends (that) the tablets be taken after meals.
  • She insists / proposes (that) he pay for the meal
  • She requests that we not make too much noise.
In BrE we try and avoid the Subjunctive by using should + infinitive
  • She insists / proposes (that) he should pay for the meal
  • He asks that we should be ready to leave at eight.
  • She requests that we should not make too much noise.
  • He recommends (that) the tablets should be taken after meals.
Or in informal BrE even the Indicative (rare in American English)
  • She insists / proposes (that) he pays for the meal
  • He asks that we are ready to leave at eight.
  • She requests that we don't make too much noise.
  • He recommends (that) the tablets are taken after meals.
With some verbs we can use a different construction with a pronoun or an -ing form
  • She insists on him paying for the meal
  • He asks us to be ready to leave at eight.
  • She requests us not to make too much noise.
  • He recommends taking the tablets after meals.

4. Present Subjunctive after it is + adjective + (that) (this usually occurs only in American English or very formal British English)

best, crucial, desirable, essential, imperative, important, recommended, urgent, vital, a good idea, a bad idea
The Subjunctive is only noticeable in the verb to be (and Passives), in the 3rd person singular of other verbs and in negatives.
  • It is important (that) David be present at the meeting.
  • It is best (that) new staff be shown round as soon as possible.
  • It is essential (that) every child have the same educational opportunities
  • It is recommended (that) she not take the exam yet.
In BrE we try and avoid the Subjunctive by using should + infinitive
  • It is important (that) David should be present at the meeting.
  • It is best (that) new staff should be shown round as soon as possible.
  • It is essential (that) every child should have the same educational opportunities
  • It is recommended (that) she should not take the exam yet.
Or in informal BrE even the Indicative (rare in American English)
  • It is important (that) David is present at the meeting.
  • It is best (that) new staff are shown round as soon as possible.
  • It is essential (that) every child has the same educational opportunities
  • It is recommended (that) she doesn't take the exam yet.

5. Present Subjunctive after certain nouns + that

advice, condition, demand, directive, intention, order, proposal, recommendation, request, suggestion, wish.
You can see that these nouns are very similar to the verbs that can be followed by the Subjunctive. Note that the noun is often followed by the verb to be in normal form before a second verb in the Subjunctive.
  • We will give him 10% discount, on condition that he collect the goods.
  • It is our intention that the new shop be open before Christmas.
  • My suggestion would be that she take some time off work.
  • Our wish is that negotiations be completed by the end of this week.

In BrE we would try and avoid this, by using should + infinitive, or the indicative.
  • We will give him 10% discount, on condition that he collects the goods.
  • It is our intention that the new shop should be open before Christmas.
  • My suggestion would be that she takes some time off work.
  • Our wish is that negotiations should be completed by the end of this week.

Continuous aspect

Traditionally Past Continuous Subjunctive was also used in Second Conditionals and related structures like If Only and I wish. Present Continuous forms are not usually used with the verb to be.
Present ContinuousIndicativeSubjunctive
Iam workingbe working
he, she, itis workingbe working
We, you, theyare workingbe working
Past ContinuousIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, itwas beingwere being
we, you, theywere beingwere being
other verbs,eg: work
I, he, she, itwas workingwere working
we, you, theywere workingwere working
Today we'd simply talk about using Past Continuous.
If we were thinking of investing, we wouldn't invest in your company.
They would have told us if they were coming by train
With the usual exception of were for 1st and 3rd persons singular.
If he were working for me and did that, I'd sack him immediately.
If I were being perfectly honest, I'd never have employed him.
If only I were still living in Cyprus.
I wish I were lying on a beach in the Caribbean.
And again in BrE people are increasingly using Past Continuous (Indicative) across the board.
If he was working for me and did that, I'd sack him immediately.
If I was being perfectly honest, I'd never have employed him.
If only I was still living in Cyprus.
I wish I was lying on a beach in the Caribbean.

Perfect aspect

This is getting a bit exotic, but I was able to find some examples, mainly from US job applications and rules for political candidates.
Present PerfectIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, we, you, theyhave beenhave been
he, she, ithas beenhave been
other verbs,eg: work
I, we, you, theyhave workedhave worked
he, she, ithas workedhave worked
Past PerfectIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, it, we, you, theyhad beenhad been
other verbs,eg: work
I, he, she, it, we, you, theyhad workedhad worked
These examples in Present Perfect include structures with verbs, adjectives and nouns, and even a Passive.
  • The legislature only required that the candidate have been a resident for one year as opposed to just 30 days
  • It is preferred that the candidate have held a leadership role in a large or multi-unit agency, business or firm for at least 3 years
  • It is preferred that the candidate have been involved in 3 years of internal consulting for their employer ...
  • the requirement that the candidate have resided in the municipality for a year prior doesn't apply to Senate candidacies

Perfect Continuous aspect

Even more exotic, not to say downright strange, but they do exist. Continuous forms are not usually used with the verb to be.
Present Perfect ContinuousIndicativeSubjunctive
I, we, you, theyhave been workinghave been working
he, she, ithas been workinghave been working
Past Perfect ContinuousIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, it, we, you, theyhad been workinghad been working
I found this one for a programme (CCD) for kids wanting to be confirmed at a particular Catholic parish church in the American Midwest.
  • We require that the candidate have been attending CCD regularly for at least two years.

Subjunctive or Unreal Past?

As we've already seen:
  1. All the forms of the past subjunctive except for 1st and 3rd persons singular are identical to the past simple indicative
  2. People are increasingly using was rather than were for the 1st and 3rd persons singular, especially in informal contexts.
  3. The past perfect subjunctive is identical to past perfect indicative
For these reasons the TEFL community tend to talk about the Unreal Past, rather than the Subjunctive, when talking about second and third conditionals and structures like I wish and if only.
The term Subjunctive is then reserved for the 1st and 3rd persons singular were when we decide to use a formal register.

Other uses of Unreal Past / Subjunctive

As we've seen, we can use the Unreal Past / Subjunctive to talk about the present and the future:
  • in 2nd Conditionals:
    • If he asked me, I'd go like a shot
    • And if Marcia was / were there, it would be really great.
    • If she was / were to dance me, it would be even better.
  • With I wish and if only to talk about (virtually impossible) wishes, regrets and frustration for the present / future:
    • I wish he was / were coming to the party
    • If only he was / were coming to the party.
We also use the Unreal Past / Subjunctive to talk about the past, but remember that here they are identical, so we usually only talk about the Unreal Past:
  • in 3rd and Mixed Conditionals:
    • If he had asked me, I'd have gone like a shot
    • If she had studied harder at university, she would have a better job now.
  • With I wish and if only to talk about regrets and frustration about the past:
    • I wish I hadn't said that to him
    • If only I hadn't drunk so much last night.
But there are also a few other instances where we use Unreal Past / Subjunctive
  • after would rather and would sooner when we want to express a preference:
    • I'd rather he wasn't / weren't here when my parents arrive.
    • Would you sooner I was / were beautiful but poor, or ugly but rich?
  • after the verbs suppose and imagine when they are used as imperatives
    • Suppose I was / were in your shoes, what do you think I'd do.
    • Imagine he was / were your father, how would you feel?
  • after the expression it's (about / high) time we use Unreal Past (but not Subjunctive)
    • It's (high) time I was going home. NOT ... I were going ...
    • It's (about) time he was promoted. NOT ... he were ...
  • after the expressions as if and as though, especially when we want to stress that something is unlikely or untrue
    • He acts as if he was / were the boss round here.
    • She treats him as though he was / were a mere plaything.

The were to conditional

Compare these two pairs of 2nd Conditional sentences.
  • If we offered you 10% discount, could you increase your order?
  • If we were to offer you 10% discount, could you increase your order?
  • If he spoke to me like that, I'd slap him one across the face.
  • If he were to speak to me like that, I'd slap him one across the face.
The use of were to makes the hypothetical even more hypothetical, or more 'iffy' as one website puts it.
This certainly has the attributes of being Subjunctive. The form is the same for all persons, and it can be inverted (see below). In informal English the Indicative was to is also used.
We can also use a perfect form - were to have in 3rd Conditionals, with the same increase in improbability.
  • If he had spoken to me like that, I'd have slapped him one across the face.
  • If he were to have spoken to me like that, I'd have slapped him one across the face.

The should conditional

We occasionally use a 1st or 2nd Conditional with should. Now I'm not 100% sure that this counts as a Subjunctive, but as it can be inverted (see below), I assume it is. Look at these pairs of sentences
  • If I'm late, just start without me.
  • If I should be late, just start without me.
  • If it rained, we could always go to the swimming pool.
  • If it should rain, we could always go to the swimming pool.
This use of should is similar to saying by any chance or happen to.
  • If I should be late ... / If by any chance I'm late ... / If I happen to be late ...
  • If It should rain ... / If by any chance it rained ... / If it happened to rain ...
We use this when we think something is possible but unlikely. I think we also tend to use it for circumstances we think are beyond our control.

The was / were debate

Some quotes from the experts
We often use were instead of was after if. This is common in both formal and informal styles. In a formal style were is much more common than was, and many people consider it more correct, especially in American English.
Michael Swan - Practical English Usage

According to traditional thought, statements about the conditional future such as “If I were a carpenter . . .” require the subjunctive “were,” but “was” is certainly much more common. Still, if you want to impress those in the know with your usage, use “were” when writing of something hypothetical, unlikely, or contrary to fact.
Professor Bryans - Common Errors Usage

In formal English a distinction is usually made between [was and were] but even here examples such as if she was rich are frequently encountered. This may annoy some people who have invested loads of time getting the distinction right, but there is nothing ugly or confusing in it.
Bad Linguistics

In hypothetical sentences, were is usually used instead of was ...it is important to note that was can also be used (although still considered incorrect by some grammarians), and is, in fact, more common in informal English.
Karen's Linguistics Issues
In the UK at least, 'was' is perfectly acceptable in informal usage. I'm pretty sure I use both, depending on how the fancy takes me. And according to Bad Linguistics, all three contenders for the job of UK Prime Minister in last year's elections said 'if I was your PM in three weeks' time, and not 'if I were your PM in three weeks time'. So we're in good company. Maybe.
Here is my idea of how these two forms fit into the various registers
FormalNeutralInformal
If I were / If he, she, it were
If I was / If he, she, it was
Compare the use of if he were (blue), if she were (green) and if he was (red), if she was (yellow) in British English between 1900 and 2000.

Although this trend doesn't seem to be quite as strong in American English.

It's about style and formality, not grammar

Some people will tell you it's a grammatical error to say If I was / If she was etc instead of If I were / If she were etc. And poor Joan Osborne got a lot of ignorant stick for singing 'If God was one of us' (see link below to separate post). Unreal (Indicative) Past was is just as grammatically correct as Subjunctive were. Which you use depends entirely on how formal you want to be, or which is most appropriate for what you are using it for. Don't let them bully you. Like the 'whom merchants' they've picked up a few 'rules' along the way, but it doesn't mean they necessarily understand how grammar works.

Note 1 - Is there a Future Subjunctive?

Wikipedia refers to a Future Subjunctive.
If he were to ask her, she would marry him like a shot.
If I should feed the cows, then will you feed the hens?
As we have seen, the were to construction is a simple variation on normal second conditional, while the should construction is usually a variant of the 1st Conditional. Why they should have preference over the normal forms of these conditionals for a Future Subjunctive, I don't know. And nowhere else can I find this definition. What's more I find the should example distinctly strange.

Note 2 - Inversion of Conditionals with Subjunctive forms

When we want to be more formal we can invert some unreal Conditionals (2nd, 3rd and Mixed), in Subjunctive form and leaving out if.
Were I the Prime Minister... (If I were the Prime Minister ... )
Had he known then what he knows now. (If he had known then what he knows now.)
Be that the case, then ... (If that be the case, then ...)
But we can't invert Indicative forms
If I was the Prime Minister ... / Was I the Prime Minister ...
If that was the case then... / Was that the case then...
Note that we must use the full Subjunctive negative
Were it not for his help, I would never complete the project.
Weren't it for his help, ...
Had it not been for his help, I would never have completed the project.
Hadn't it been for his help, ...
We can also invert 1st Conditionals with should
Don't hesitate to contact me, should you need any help.
(... if you need any help.)
Should you want more information, please contact me.
(If you would like more information ...)
What we are really doing here is inverting the should form of the 1st Conditional
Don't hesitate to contact me if you should need any help.
If you should want more information, please contact me.
We can also invert the were to (have) forms of 2nd and 3rd Conditionals
Were we to offer you a better price, would you be able to increase your order.
(If we were to offer you ...)
Were he to have defaulted on his mortgage, the bank would have taken possession of his house.
(If he were to have defaulted ...)

Some Subjunctive quotes

If music be the food of love, play on
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?
Abraham Lincoln

Some songs which use Subjunctive

Come September
Natalie Imbruglia
if I were a rich man
Fiddler on the roof

And many others using Second Conditional (see 'Conditionals in songs' below)

Related posts

Links - main sources

I found much of the more detailed information at Karen's Linguistics Issues and Mary Ansell - English Grammar.

Links - related posts

Links - grammar (mainly British)

Links - grammar (mainly American)

Links - discussion about usage

Links - Defenders of the Subjunctive

  • Daily Writing Tips
  • God save the Subjunctive - but as the same writer uses the expression 'an humble' ... (Google results 275,000), when every dictionary I consult uses 'a humble' (Google results 6,960,000), I'm not sure how seriously we should take him as a guide to modern English. To be fair though, I don't think he is trying to force us all to use the Subjunctive, just putting forward an argument in its defence.
  • God save the Subjunctive - Very comprehensive list of examples
  • Subjunctive 'abuse' in songs - self-confessed 'militant grammarian' lists songs that use was instead of were

Some exercises

1 comment:

Bret said...

This is very researched and thoughtful-thank you. I appreciate this all the more as this is a subject that I struggle to teach to my more advanced students as they begin to notice more of the nuances of English that stem beyond casual conversation. The explanations and examples you've provided will definitely be of use. By the way, I'm American and what you say is true-we have sort of "thrown out" the "true" subjunctive going to the past indicative (excepting the fixed examples you mentioned).