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I had always understood the subjunctive mood to mean a hypothetical present tense. However, I think it might also imply that the hypothetical event is outside the realm of possibility. Is that necessarily the case?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

I don't think there is any implication of impossibility per se, although the fact that the statement is hypothetical might bias its use toward the impossible, e.g. "if I were you I'd buy the cheaper brand."

In constrast consider "if I were to get one I'd buy the cheaper brand." There is no indication that I won't "get one", in fact I might be seriously considering it.

[EDIT] Anicul adds:

The first sentence is an example of a present contractual conditional statement and the second is a future less vivid conditional statement. Present and Past contractual conditionals are contrary to fact, while future less vivid conditional statements imply uncertain potential for action.

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Thanks, this is a thorough response. – Zach Rattner Nov 9 '11 at 15:49

Traditional grammar, following the Latin model, regards the subjunctive as an inflectional category. This is understandable in a language such as French which has a full set of inflections for the present and perfect subjunctive, many of which serve no other purpose. English, on the other hand, uses only the plain form of the verb to indicate the subjunctive. The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, and Bas Aarts in his ‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’, regard the subjunctive not as an inflectional category, but as a syntactic construction. That is to say, it is identified not by its form, but by its function.

Let’s take as an example the sentence We demand that he resign. It is used here as part of a mandative construction, that is, one that, in Huddleston and Pullum’s words ‘includes a component of meaning comparable to that expressed by the modal verb must’. Subjunctive resign is identical to the form of the verb used as the infinitive and as the present tense in all persons except the third person singular. However, in such sentences the indicative is also available and many native speakers, particularly native speakers of British English, will choose it and say, in all but the most formal contexts, We demand that he resigns. In truth, the subjunctive is rare in contemporary English, and may well disappear altogether over the next 50 to 100 years.

There seems to be a popular belief that conditional sentences contain subjunctives. Other than in one special case (and even there it’s doubtful), they do not. The three principal types of English conditions are:

First Conditional: If you run, you will catch the train.

Second Conditional: If you ran, you would catch the train.

Third Conditional: If you had run, you would have caught the train.

These use the modal verbs will and would in the main clause. Will typically expresses, prediction (as here) and, secondarily, volition. Would typically expresses, primarily, unreal meaning (as here) and, secondarily, habit, volition and prediction.

The special case arises in a sentence such as If I were you, I’d have a haircut. Many grammarians still regard this use of were as subjunctive. Huddleston and Pullum do not. They call it irrealis were. They explain:

Traditional grammar calls our irrealis a ‘past subjunctive’, contrasting it with ‘present subjunctive’ be. But there are no grounds for analysing this were as a past tense counterpart of the be we find in constructions like It’s vital that he be kind to her.

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I'm not sure what's special about that "special case". What distinguishes it from any other example of the second conditional? (As an aside, the ground for analysing it as a past subjunctive is the perfect parallel with closely related languages in which it clearly is a past tense). – Peter Taylor Nov 9 '11 at 17:26
@PeterTaylor: It's a special case because, unlike other conditionals, it has what some still regard as a subjunctive in the ‘if’-clause. Even if you don’t regard it as a subjunctive, it’s still different, if only because there’s a choice between ‘were’ and ‘was’ in the first and third persons singular. Which related languages do you have in mind? If ‘were’ is a past subjunctive, what is the present? Interesting questions which probably can’t be pursued here. – Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 19:21
Present subjunctive, courtesy of Wm. Shakespeare: If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved. This tense has not been widely used for at least two centuries. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '11 at 21:36
Indeed it has not. That's why it makes no sense to speak of a past subjunctive in contemporary English. – Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 22:11
I'm looking at it from the other perspective to the one I think you're attributing to me. Why do we say that "If I were you" is irrealis/subjunctive but not "If you ran"? The only reason I can think of is that "be" has an irregular past tense, so it's more obvious that something interesting is going on. In Spanish (and I suspect in other Romance languages, living and dead) both would use the verb form commonly called the imperfect subjunctive, which morphologically is very clearly closer to the indefinite preterite (simple past) indicative than to the present indicative. – Peter Taylor Nov 9 '11 at 22:23

Subjunctive mood means future 'I would if I could'. All other uses are derivatives. 'I should know = I better know' &c. In conditional sentences it serves to mark hypothetical future, 'I wish I could'.

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'Should' and 'could' are modal verbs. They are not subjunctive. – Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 9:23
What are they modal, not subjunctive? 'I wish I could' is clearly subjunctive. The subjunctive, in its simplest and apparently most primitive use, seen in Homer, expresses futurity, like the future indicative. – Igor Urazowski Nov 9 '11 at 11:48
I hope my answer goes some way to explaining. – Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 16:03

The need for present subjunctive didn't suddenly disappear over the past two centuries. I'd say we still use present subjunctive frequently today, only replacing Shakespeare's be with present, not past subjunctive (so-called "irrealis") were.

  • If this were real gold, I'd be rich.
  • Were I wealthy, I'd be living better.

This is clearly present, not past tense usage. I consider replacement of be with were for present subjunctive an example of beneficial evolution of language, in that it simplifies without impairing clarity or understanding. (Shakespeare's if this be would today be understood as indicative, no different from if this is, just as Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.)

Of course, were can still be used as past subjunctive as well, but it's usually replaced by other moods/forms, such as had been.

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Shakespeare used both the irrealis with "were": "If he were living, I would try him yet," and also the present subjunctive with "be": "If this be false, and upon me proved, I never wrote, not no man ever loved." There was never any replacement of be with were. The sentences in which we currently use were always used to have were, and the sentences that used to have be now have the indicative: am, is, or are. The "irrealis" is also called the "past subjunctive"; some grammarians use "irrealis" instead to avoid confusion over the fact that it's actually in the present. – Peter Shor Mar 4 '14 at 17:34
And in the U.S., the present subjunctive is still in widespread use in the "mandative subjunctive": "We demand that he be brought to trial". – Peter Shor Mar 4 '14 at 17:43

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