The subjunctive mood

Detective Sergeant Lewis: All that stonework, must take months to do the pointing.
Chief Inspector Morse: You’re not a bloody mason, are you? Detective Sergeant Lewis: No such luck. I might have been a Chief Inspector by now if I was.
Chief Inspector Morse: Were, Lewis, if you were. You’ll never get on if you can’t master your subjunctives. Keep touching your forelock, we may be back in Oxford before lunch.
Detective Sergeant Lewis: Shouldn’t that be might?

Kevin Whately and John Thaw in ‘Ghost in the Machine’, Inspector Morse, 1987

We use the subjunctive to:

  • Express wishes or conditions contrary to fact
  • Make demands, suggestions or recommendations (mandative subjunctive)
  • Mean let or may in idiomatic expressions (formulaic subjunctive)

Express wishes or conditions contrary to fact

The subjunctive mood of a verb is used to express a wish or a condition contrary to fact. When it is used to express a condition contrary to fact, the clause often starts with if, as if or as though.

I wish I were you.
If I were a carpenter, would you marry me anyway?
She acted as if she were guilty.

This type of subjunctive is indicated by the use of were instead of was with singular subjects.

Mandative subjunctive

The mandative subjunctive is used with clauses that often begin with that and express a demand, requirement, request, recommendation or suggestion. You can sometimes delete that with no loss of meaning.

The mandative subjunctive is indicated by the use of the base form of the verb (love, skip, hop) with the third person singular.

Management recommends that the committee approve the project.
I demand (that) he leave immediately.
He suggested that his student use the fire escape exit.
I insist (that) the cat be returned to its owner.
She recommends that the house be rewired.

Formulaic subjunctive

The formulaic subjunctive is used in idiomatic expressions to convey the meaning of let or may. It uses the base form of the verb.

Be that as it may…
Heaven forbid!
God bless you.

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