Subjunctive in English

I prefer "If I were a rich man" to "If I was a rich man", though apparently I am in the minority.  This despite the fact that someone who is as bad at proof-reading and litters his posts with grammatical and spelling mistakes cannot afford to be snooty about verb tense.

I vividly remember the year in Spanish when subjunctive verbs were introduced.  After slogging for years learning verb conjugation on all kinds of tenses, it came as a rude shock that there was an entire second set of parallel subjunctive verb conjugations.  Eeek. It was like completing your tool box after years of careful purchases, only to discover you needed a second set in metric.

I have forgotten most all the Spanish, but since then I remain fascinated by what, to my knowledge, is the only remaining subjunctive verb conjugation in routinely-used English.


  1. Matt:

    Subjunctive is a mood, not a tense.

  2. pino:

    I prefer “If I were a rich man” to “If I was a rich man”

    When I say it out loud, I prefer "were" if the subject is meant to be "I". I like "was" if the subject is meant to be "rich" or "man".

    But I am horrible at all things grammar and spelling.

  3. Isaac Crawford:

    Subjunctive isn't a tense. We call it a mood, but isn't it a case? In any case, it was my understanding that deciding between 'were' or 'was' wasn't a grammar issue but a usage one. Isn't the third conditional supposed to connote a totally wild, unrealistic proposition? So, that means "If I were on Mars," connotes the same possibilities as "If I were rich." "If I was rich," isn't incorrect, it just connotes that you could be rich but that you just happen not to be. At least that was how I was taught...

  4. dearieme:

    “If I were a rich man” may live on principally because of one irritatingly catchy song.

  5. Jens Fiederer:

    Subjunctive is indeed a mood - although modern grammar no longer now uses the term "irrealis".

    Quoting from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

    One striking weakness of the traditional analysis is that it treats the verbs of I be and I were as present and past tenses of a single mood, the subjunctive: this is quite unjustified in terms of the contemporary language. In general they appear in different constructions and are not in direct contrast, but in the one place where it is marginally possible to have a contrast the meaning difference is clearly not one of time but of modality:
    [34] iIf that be so, the plan will have to be revised.[subjunctive use of plain form]
    iiIf that were so, the plan would have to be revised.[irrealis]

    Both are concerned with present time, but [ii] suggests much more than [i] that 'that' is not so. In its normal use, i.e. in modal remoteness constructions, irrealis were does not refer to past time, and there is no synchronic reason to analyse it as a past tense form.

    So you are correct about "were" being the only survivor of this sort.

  6. Jens Fiederer:

    Please strike "no longer" in the above - it is a survivor of a previous attempt of phrasing.

  7. Suz:

    For me it was French class. Boy did I learn a lot about English that year!

  8. Bill Drissel:

    What English has instead of a subjunctive mood is modal auxiliary verbs. They are capable of very fine shades of meaning. "I {must / might / would / could / could / should / can} go."

    Bill Drissel
    Grand Prairie, TX

  9. E.Z. Hart:

    It's been a while, but if I remember correctly from German class, that language uses subjunctive mood to handle things the are (or may be) contrary to reality. Aside from the familiar English uses ("If I were you ...", "If I had x, I would y ..."), it's used heavily in when writing about things like as-yet-unproven criminal accusations (e.g., in news reporting). The English equivalent would be heavy use of "allegedly", or "the alleged murderer". *

    Again, that's a half-remembered fact from a class over a decade ago; take with a grain of salt.

    - E.Z.

    * Perhaps that's why Americans can be so fuzzy on the distinction between being accused of a crime and convicted of a crime - our language doesn't have good support for the concept.

  10. David Frost:

    An interesting post. It's not true though that "if I were" (and maybe "if it be") are the only relic forms for the subjunctive in English. In fact there is an argument to say that the subjunctive is making a comeback.

    In British English anyway (I am a Brit), 50 years ago it would have been natural to say something like "I suggested that he should look at the book". It's now also possible to say "I suggested that he look at the book" - clearly a subjunctive form because there is no 's' on 'look' - and the "should" form means something a bit stronger, ie he 'ought to' do it. And it's a productive form with verb forms that are clearly distinct from the indicative: "I insisted that he do it"

    Why is this happening? Some say it's interference from US English, but I don't know whether it's possible to say 'look' or 'do' in that context in US English? I think it is probably also interference from learning other European languages, since the Latin-based ones at least also use subjunctives in this (and wider) contexts. I think it might also be that (again in British English at least) people are ceasing to make the fine distinctions implied in 'might / may / should / would / ought', and simpler forms with less subtlety are becoming more possible. But even so it's a bit of a mystery why this virtually dead grammatical form is beginning to make a come back.

  11. Craig:

    Some say it’s interference from US English

    Which could be true since American English was unaffected by the reform the Brits undertook in the late 18th century to "refine" the language. And it's a very good example of the subjunctive still in use in English. I was struggling to come up with one -- though I know they exist.

  12. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    The intellectual says "would that it be so..."
    The average person says "Who gives a fuck? Gimme a beer!"


    Joking aside, a mildly interesting observation, but one which probably ties to people getting lame school training and just screwing up for the most part. Given that the average person has a very difficult time choosing properly between "you're/your", "there/their", "there's/theirs", "to/too/two" and so forth, I find it improbable that the average person is doing anything of the sort with the subjunctive mood that is rationally intended. So if it's being used, it's by a narrow range of intellectuals, who have limited affect on language usage as a whole outside their own narrow circles.

  13. a_random_guy:

    Languages do change. The subjunctive in English is dying out. Also things "he has mown the lawn" have been replaced with the simple past conjugation "he has mowed the lawn". i still flinch at that one, but it is now everywhere.

    Why is English losing some of these complexities? Aside from the natural tendency of languages to change, I expect a lot of it has to do with English being the new language of international communication. The majority of the people who use English on a daily basis have learned it as a second language. The English used in international communications is automatically simplified, even by native speakers, in order to ensure that everyone understands what is being said.

  14. George Weinberg:

    When somebody calls on the phone and asks for George, I say "that's me", even though I know grammatically one is supposed to use the subjective pronoun after a linking verb so I should say "that's I". Does anyone actually utter such a monstrosity? Why do we even have separate subjective and objective pronouns? What are they good for? Absolutely nothing, that's what I sing.

  15. Frank Waleczak:


  16. blokeinfrance:

    Would I be correct in thinking that there may be some confusion here?
    Guy Deutscher writes amusingly on the history of language in general, you don't have to be a lit grad to follow the plot.

  17. Tom:

    Or: "Were I a rich man." My German major subjunctive tense learning turned out to be another deep dive into how English works. The present subjunctive opened my eyes to how journalism reports; e.g., "He 'said' he was going to work." Not that he necessarily did, just that he "said" he would do that.

  18. Smock Puppet, Piloting The Economic Seas Betwixt Scilla and Charybdis:

    >>> The English used in international communications is automatically simplified, even by native speakers, in order to ensure that everyone understands what is being said.

    ARG, I beg to differ. Non-native speakers welcome correction and instruction on the finer points of the language. Native speakers are taught by idiots who barely grasp the basic elements of the language, and are obnoxious ("You Grammar Nazi!") when corrected.

    It says a lot when you realize they don't diagram sentences any more in high school, to learn to understand the proper grammatical structures.

    It's the native speakers, taught in modern schools by postmodern libtards, who will actually attempt to justify garbage like "Ebonics", that are dragging the language down to the gutter.

    Next up is mathematics. Wait for "Algebro".