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It is to me a curious fact that the subjunctive mood of verbs in English has so nearly disappeared in modern times. In fact, even the correct form and usage of the subjunctive in Modern English barely distinguishes itself from the indicative! In many regions and dialects, the subjunctive would appear to be entirely obsolete, replaced by the indicative in all cases. (Educated speakers, certainly in Britain at least, do however still make good use of it.)

The present subjunctive form in Modern English is (in almost all cases) virtually identical to the third-person plural present indicative (e.g. 'He were', 'She own'). This is markedly different from Old English, where the subjunctive form a form was much more easily noticeable. Even by the advent of Early Modern English in the 16th century, the subjunctive was already converging with the indicative.

Other Modern European languages, not only Romance ones such as French and Spanish, but Germanic languages related to English (e.g. Dutch/German) have a much more pronounced subjunctive form. From what I remember of my Classical Latin, word suffixes for a variety of tenses are hugely obvious in the subjunctive.

My question is: why is this convergence of the subjunctive and indicative so strongly the case in Modern English? Is it a general trend in other Germanic/Romance (or more generally Indo-European) languages? Why is its disappearance so much more apparent in English than other related languages?

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Indeed, my French teacher last year insisted that English doesn't have a subjunctive mood...It made my heart hurt. I'll be interested to see any answers. –  kitukwfyer Aug 17 '10 at 22:37
A niggle: The subjunctive (more specifically the present subjunctive) is always identical to the infinitive of the verb, rather than the third plural present indicative (‘that he be’, not ‘that he are’). The past subjunctive is always identical to the third plural past indicative. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 5 at 19:42
@JanusBahsJacquet: Yes that's quite true. I'm not sure why I expressed it as such... perhaps for the sake of symmetry. :) In any case the third person present indicative is almost always identical to the infinitive, of course. –  Noldorin Jan 9 at 2:38
Almost, but not always (specifically, not in the case of to be). :-) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 22 at 23:42

8 Answers 8

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I mentioned this in another question, but just because the morphological inflection is disappearing, that doesn't mean the subjunctive mood is actually disappearing from the language. Just like when most of our verbal inflection disappeared (now it's "I go", "you go", "we go", "they go"), that doesn't mean we lost verbs for first person singular and plural, 2nd person, and so on.

Nohat's short answer gives the main point — if 9 out of 10 times the form looks identical to a MUCH more common form, then over time things might converge and regularize. A linguist would call this "paradigm leveling". Less common words and structures tend to regularize faster than more common ones (which is why words like "to be" and "to have" are irregular in so many different languages). The subjunctive is rare and not that distinct in English, so it is in trouble.

We see the past subjunctive form only in "to be", but we see the present subjunctive in the third person singular form of any verb — it has no "s" at the end like the indicative form.

So, this is of course subjunctive:

If I were ten years younger... (often said "If I was...")

But this is subjunctive too:

So be it.

It's important that he arrive on time tomorrow.

There are a bunch of examples here that include this other kind of subjunctive. This is just anecdotal but I haven't noticed this one disappearing as much.

Is this a general trend in related languages? Well, in Swedish this seems to be happening. In German one subjunctive form is used all over the place, and the other is used pretty much just in newspapers and journalism in general, but it is at no risk of dying out (it has legal implications akin to those that make the word "allegedly" so important in English journalism).

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Interesting. Although it's a technicality whether the subjunctive form still exists if it's identical to the indicative (at least for certain tenses), you're certainly right about there remaining notable differences. I suppose the fundamental region for this convergence is that we like simplicity in language, so long as it does not generate too much ambiguity. (Some would argue the simplicity of English grammar already does.) –  Noldorin Aug 18 '10 at 8:29
Although forms like "It's important that he arrive on time tomorrow" have not disappeared, I do increasingly see the "It's important that he arrives on time tomorrow" form. So even in this case the marked subjunctive seems to be fading. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 13 '10 at 7:21
@ShreevatsaR That would be considered nonstandard in North America. You simply never hear that here in for example broadcasting, because it sounds illiterate. –  tchrist Dec 26 '12 at 20:41
@tchrist: ...but most people are illiterate. I hear that a lot in American as well as British English. Cameron says it too. –  Cerberus Feb 8 '13 at 23:44
In comparison to Swedish, it has already happened entirely in Danish and Norwegian, where the past subjunctive has vanished completely, and the present subjunctive is only found in frozen, idiomatic hortative expressions like, “Long live X” or “God bless us/you” (much like in Swedish). The Swedish past subjunctive of the verb ‘to be’ (vore) is still quite common, though, since it is often used as a conditional: Det vore ju bra om… ‘it would be nice if …’. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 5 at 19:40

Part of the answer is that the subjunctive ended up with almost no functional load. In most of its uses it is distinguished syntactically from other constructions, so morphological distinction is redundant. (e.g. 'Long live the King!', 'I demand that he be silenced' The major exception to this is in conditionals, where it traditionally distinguishes irrealis (counter-factual) from realis conditions:

  • If I was there, I don't remember. [Realis]
  • If I were there, I would give him a piece of my mind. [Irrealis]

But even there, realis antecedents are relatively infrequent, and in any case it appears that English speakers are often unaware of the distinction, though it is alive and well in some languages.

So the only case in which the choice of subjunctive verb alone makes a difference to the meaning is one where the difference is not now widely appreciated.

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I think the short answer is the subjunctive became marginal when the forms distinguishing subjunctive from indicative became identical, leaving only some forms of the verb be to mark the subjunctive.

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This seems fair enough, though it sort of begs the question of why the subjunctive form became identical to the indicative in the first place. Any why so markedly in English of all languages? –  Noldorin Aug 18 '10 at 8:24
For what it's worth, the subjunctive only survives as a remnant in modern Swedish, mostly in a few set phrases. It seems to me too that a psychological or sociological motivation for the conflation of verb forms is needed here. –  Felixyz Aug 18 '10 at 9:38
@Noldorin because the endings dropped off, like other endings in the language (and the endings were the only things distinguishing subjunctive from indicative). That's the same reason why we don't have cases on nouns anymore. –  siride Dec 14 '10 at 15:55

In short, The English verb system was different in Old and Middle English, but it had basically syncretized by Early Modern English; thus the subjunctive is still there and very alive in English, particularly literary English, but it's very inappreciable, which can make it difficult to see:

If you be good and if you eat all of your vegetables, I will get you some ice cream.

If you were good and if you ate all of your vegetables, I would get you some ice cream.

The President has demanded that we cease our action.

My only goal is that I win that race tomorrow.

It's best if he stay home today.

If I had known, I would have said something.

If you spoke English as well as I, the subjunctive would be child's play.

God strike me dead if I be lying to you about the subjunctive.

Whether I be brash or demure, the subjunctive shall live!

God bless the subjunctive and God forbid the subjunctive ever die!

My only wish for Christmas is that my father be here to celebrate it with us.

If there be gold, I shall find it.

If there were gold, I should find it.

I pray that he see the error of his ways.

We can only hope that he find true love.

It is very important that you not speak ill of the queen.

If I were President, I would cut taxes, unless I were Republican. (lol)

These are just many examples and, as one can plainly see, the subjunctive doesn't look any different than the indicative most of the time. And though this be the case, it's still considered the mark of the educated speaker. If I were you, I would learn it.

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I dispute the first example, at least for modern English: shift it into the third person and you do not get "If he be good" (subjunctive but pretty well obsolete) but "It he is good". All the other instances of "be" with "I" or "you" I accept as subjunctive, but not as modern English: similarly "It's best if he stay home today". –  Colin Fine Mar 16 '11 at 18:16
@Colin: The sentence “It’s best that he stay home today.” looks perfectly well-formed and normal to this North American speaker. It’s a bit formal, but nothing out of the ordinary. In contrast, I’ve often heard British people say and write things that would be perceived as wrong on this side of the Atlantic for their lack of subjunctive use. –  tchrist Apr 4 '11 at 2:52
A lot of these sound really awful to me. They don’t sound educated; they sound like someone has overreached in the pursuit of a distinctive style. If there be gold, I shall find it is pirate talk. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 14 '11 at 8:35
"If there were gold, I should find it" sounds wrong to Americans because we don't use should that way any more. We would say would. I would say "It's best if he stays home today"; that's not a case that calls for the subjunctive, although I can't say why. And apparently many of these subjunctives sound wrong to British speakers. –  Peter Shor Dec 1 '12 at 12:33

Modern English is syncretic and other languages like French are inflectional. Syncretic languages don't inflect their verbs too often so it's hard to see the subjunctive. It still exists though and is still said.

"I wish it were not the case." "I demand that he do it."

It's a pretty easy rule once you learn it.

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This doesn't really answer the question. –  Noldorin Dec 13 '10 at 21:34

I suggest that what is being overlooked here for the most part is that certain grammar patterns and idioms drive necessity for a non-finite verb expression. For example, 'anticipatory it' in the above example, "It is very important that you not speak ill of the queen." which can only find inversion and thus resolution by using the non-finite subject 'that' clause in: "That you not speak ill of the queen is very important".

So if there is/are rule(s) to be sought and revealed, there is perhaps imperative within the requirement (for various reasons) for a non-finite verb expression — either primary (as in the case of a non-finite subject as above), or subordinate, as in the case of a 'governed' verb, that being any second(ary) verb separated from it's driving/governing verb by a conjunction — typically 'if' or 'that' (explicit or ellipted) or the 'to' infinitive marker.

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I don’t quite understand what you mean here. How is “that you not speak ill of the queen” a non-finite subject? It is a finite clause acting as a subject. Your second paragraph doesn’t even parse as a sentence for me. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 5 at 19:38
Perhaps it would be clearer if we used a 3rd person example: "It is very important that she not speak ill of the queen." If we remove the anticipatory it we must invert, giving us: "That she not speak ill of the queen is very important." This makes it clear that the main verb 'speak is infinitive/base form and thus not inflected (which would perhaps be easier to see if we used the more modern 'do + inf.' to construct the negative. So we have: non-finite subject clause + copular verb + AdjP –  lewlingo Jan 6 at 2:25
It is in fact not an infinitive, but a subjunctive, which in the present tense just happens to be identical to the infinitive. An infinitive cannot directly follow a subject like that, that's one of its defining features. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 at 2:32

It is the way of language. For instance, biblical Hebrew, because it is recorded over a period of a thousand years or so, shows a remarkably similar change. What would be the subjunctive mood often has to be guessed at in certain contexts, and in others, it is now marked with a different word (much as the English subjunctive is now marked with were).

As language evolves, the spoken language shortens and becomes easier to pronounce. Hence, "am not" has contracted—to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere—to ain't in many parts of the US.

Written language moves the opposite way. Because the purpose is to accurately replicate spoken language, words are elongated, more letters are added, and etc.

The effect of these two situations is that language simplifies, losing its cases and the inflections for verb forms. What remains is a language that is almost fully dependent upon syntax. When those verbal inflections disappear, the peculiarity and particularity of the language disappears with it, until what is left, is a language that looks very much like American English.

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I don't know why you're complaining about American English; the subjunctive is actually used more in the U.S. than the U.K. –  Peter Shor Jan 22 at 23:36

My opinion is that the subjunctive is not used due to the laziness of teachers and students.

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You could improve your answer if you had some evidence to support your opinion. –  KitFox Jan 22 at 22:16
Thank you KitFox for editing out the substance of my post. I will not bother with this site again –  Martha Jan 23 at 15:50

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