Any verb has a mood, a voice and a tense. The mood will be indicative, imperative. infinitive etc. Voice will be either active or passive. Tense will be present, future, past,perfect,pluperfect, future perfect etc?

How does subjunctive fit into this schema? What is the alternative called?

I find it difficult to understand it as a mood, since any subjunctive verb is written indicatively, which is a mood in its own right.

E.G. If I were rich, I would travel widely

Later edit I can now see from comments and answers that the above sentence is not indicative (which is effectively its opposite and something I should have realised). Though I also appreciate that if one accepts John Lawler's dictum there is no subjunctive in English.

  • Not all subjunctive verbs are written 'indicatively'. In fact, in your own example, If I was rich would be the indicative.
    – Anonym
    Sep 16, 2014 at 18:13
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    Probably a 'declarative' sentence. 'I am rich and I have traveled widely'.
    – user3847
    Sep 16, 2014 at 18:23
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    The subjunctive is a mood, just like indicative. The indicative mood signifies that the verb expresses a fact, whereas the subjunctive mood signifies uncertainty or doubt whether the idea the verb suggests is in fact true or not. In: "if I were you, . . ." "were" is the first person singular present subjunctive of "to be" which is subjunctive because the condition is expressing something contrary to fact. You are not in fact me, and you are not claiming to be me. You are just saying that if you were me, this is what you'd do.
    – shane
    Sep 16, 2014 at 19:08
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    Has to be superjunctive, no? (Just what do you mean by "opposite" here?)
    – Drew
    Sep 16, 2014 at 20:47
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    Not all grammatical features have well-defined opposites.
    – user28567
    Sep 17, 2014 at 4:46

6 Answers 6


You're confusing traditional Latin grammar terminology with English grammar terminology,
and with modern linguistic terminology, as well.

Mood, Voice, and Tense were traditional inflectional categories of Latin verbs. I.e,
every verb in Latin was inflected (marked uniquely) for some mix of mood, voice, and tense.
Latin had six tenses (by a strange coincidence the same six you listed),
four moods (indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and interrogative),
and two voices (active and passive). That was Latin.

English has two tenses (Present and Past), no moods, and no voices.
In particular, English has no subjunctive mood, so you don't have to worry about it any more.

However, many other languages have rich inflectional systems, even richer than Latin.
Sanskrit and Greek both had a Middle Voice as well as Active and Passive, for instance,
and an Optative Mood (used for things one wishes and hopes for), and Sanskrit also had a Benedictive Mood (used for blessings).

And that's just Indo-European. There are lots of other ways to organize these matters.

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    English has a subjunctive, if I be not badly mistaken.
    – shane
    Sep 16, 2014 at 19:05
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    If you say so. Would that you were not mistaken. Sep 16, 2014 at 19:34
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    I have traditional grammars published around 1950, too. My favorite Latin grammar is copyright 1910. But Latin hasn't changed over the last few centuries, whereas English has. And some things have been discovered about the language, and about languages in general. I don't have the particular book you mention, but my guess would be that it does not indicate what grammatical phenomena single out the "subjunctive" from anything else. Because there aren't any. There are a few types of constructions with odd verbal uses, rarely resorted to and dying out; these are the ones where the hands wave. Sep 16, 2014 at 19:47
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    It's a descriptive grammar and it gives real morphological rules about how to form the subjunctive. (e.g. the form is the same as the indicative minus the -s in 3rd person singular, except for the verbs "to be" and "to have". Going back further in history, of course, the English subjunctive was more highly inflected and the forms were more distinctive. (See: ling.upenn.edu/~kroch/courses/lx310/handouts-09/…) Sure English changes over time, but if you look at the living language, people still use the subjunctive.
    – shane
    Sep 16, 2014 at 19:53
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    Since the form is "the same as" some other form, it's not distinctively marked. The fact that one can't tell the putative subjunctive from the indicative in almost every case -- except for some frozen forms like If I were you -- indicates that this is a chimaera. It's a label to put on things that vary from what one might expect, rather than a description of linguistic phenomena. Sep 16, 2014 at 20:00

The short answer to your question is "mood", like the indicative.

John Lawler comments that "English has no subjunctive mood". I do not entirely agree with him, although I agree with him that in Latin, at least, subjunctive is a mood.

It probably depends on your country and your age! I am aged 64 living in London, UK. Most of the people I talk to in an average week use the subjunctive and use it correctly. But it is probably correct that a majority of native English speakers in the UK no longer use it or use it incorrectly.

50 years ago in the UK, the top schools taught Latin. It was considered to be the best way to learn to write and speak English properly and to learn to think clearly. Today few schools in the UK teach Latin.

When it comes to primary and secondary education (pre-university) in the UK, few children are taught the subjunctive today. But then a significant number of English teachers in the UK are almost illiterate. It is hard to get accurate data on that, because it is a highly contentious issue.

I rarely look at secondary school textbooks, but I do look at "English as a Foreign Language" (EFL) textbooks. The terminology has changed substantially over the last 50 years, which makes your question more difficult. But the EFL books I have seen rarely spend much time dealing with the subjunctive.

[Added later]

John Lawler made an interesting comment below. I should make clear that I am not expressing an opinion on the merits; I am just making the factual point that usage varies substantially even with the UK.

Plenty of academics speaking and writing "perfect" English with RP accents (=Received Pronunciation, still used by the majority of those in senior government positions, the older universities, and in many of the traditional professions) would strongly attack the use of the subjunctive as a needless complexity. They will attack correct spelling, on the basis that in Shakespeare's day, there was no such thing.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Will the internet entrench "correct" English (used, to be pejorative) by the "Establishment", or will we see English fracturing into ever more dialects?

[Sorry, must be getting tired, it took 3 edits to fix those typos]

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    That's because English learners have enough to learn already without being pestered by the folk grammar that natives are exposed to ("taught" seems not the correct verb here). English learners need to be able to do more than wave their hands and whisper "Subjunctive!" as if that explained anything. That will pass with native speakers, simply because they don't know any better and they already speak the language anyway. But ESL students deserve more. Sep 16, 2014 at 19:38
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    Classical grammar, folk grammar ... if hip-hop grammar comes next, I'm learning Klingon. Sep 16, 2014 at 19:59
  • Yes. As you will see from my note under John Lawler's answer, I was that British child of the 1950s, six years senior to your good self.
    – WS2
    Sep 17, 2014 at 8:32

Subjunctive is a mood. The three moods are indicative, subjunctive, and imperative.

By infinitive, did you mean the forms "to walk" or "to run?"

I think some get confused, as in your comment about being "written indicatively" about what the subjunctive is. It expresses uncertainty. It often looks the same as some indicative past tense forms of the same verb, but it is not.

Just to complete your initial statement of "Any verb has a mood, a voice and a tense," verbs also have a person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular or plural).

  • 1
    "expresses uncertainty": I agree that is often true. But it is also used as a kind of way of cloaking something unpalatable in a way that is thought to lessen the element of personal attack. Plus such constructions are often so tricky to get right that the effort of doing so has a soothing effect on the one saying the unpalatable things!
    – almagest
    Sep 16, 2014 at 20:50
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    @ I have grasped from this that the opposite to subjunctive is indicative - something I should have realised all along. That much is now clear. But I was also interested in what @John Lawler said.
    – WS2
    Sep 17, 2014 at 8:38
  • I'm still not sure if you could consider them opposites. I imagine the analogy here would be calling a straight line the opposite of a curve. I would say they are just different. Sep 17, 2014 at 20:37

Moods are indicative, subjunctive, conditional and imperative.

The infinitives are no mood, they are nonfinite verb forms (infinitives, participles, gerunds). Finite verb forms are limited in their use, they can only be used together with a subject. Nonfinite verb forms are not bound to a subject. Internet sites often say infinitives are a mood. This is wrong.

Indicative is used for describing what is real. Subjunctive is used when we are describing what is not real (and this can be quite different things).

John Lawler says English has practically no subjunctive and I understand him. He means the subjunctive forms have in most cases no special markers and have mostly the same form as the infinitive or the past indicative. But that is not quite true. The subjunctive forms have clear markers, but they are no verb endings. We find the markers in the sentence structure. "As if+past" is a clear marker for subjunctive, "if+past"is a marker for subjunctive as well, if the main clause has the would-form. Certain verbs as to wish, to demand etc can be markers for subjunctive or expressions like "It's high time+past". The use of the subjunctive in English is drastically reduced, true, but I hold the view English has a subjunctive.

  • When I asked this question over a year ago, I regret I had no idea how technical it would become. As I am simply a native speaker and have no grammarian or linguistic training I regret that I feel insufficiently qualified to involve myself in this discussion. But I thank you for your contribution and trust that those better qualified than me will enter the discussion.
    – WS2
    Sep 19, 2015 at 13:01

I'm no linguist, so I'll stick with what I hope is common sense (and makes sense).

It seems to me the subjunctive is most easily put into context by looking at other European languages where it's application (the expression of doubt) is made explicit in the use of dedicated verb conjugation / participle pairings. For example:

English: "Had I known": German / Spanish

Seen in this way, the subjunctive can be viewed as the adornment of specific temporal constructs with mood 'candy'. In english, the candy is missing.

In both examples, the resulting (foreign language) expressions are distinctive and easily recognised. My impression is, incidentally, that in these languages, the subjunctive is also put to more frequent use.

I see no opposite to 'subjunctive' as a linguistic term, but rather the simple negation of an expression in the subjunctive, as in "Had I not known".

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    It probably does not help to try to talk about English grammar in terms of Spanish or German grammar.
    – tchrist
    Sep 19, 2014 at 21:51
  • If I go into a dark room, I take a torch. Where's the difference? Sep 20, 2014 at 19:06

"If I were rich..." is not the true subjunctive form. Instead, it should be written "Were I rich..."

Exact wording aside, subjunctive merely indicates "contrary to fact". It is not rocket science, boys and girls.

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    "If I were a rich man ..." , famous song of a musical. The subjunctive with inversion (Were I a rich man) is just a variant. But you can't say that "if I were" is not correct.
    – rogermue
    Sep 19, 2015 at 12:30

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