I first learned about the subjunctive mood in my Spanish class. The main purpose of subjunctive is to express doubt and uncertainty, what I learned in class.

I have posted about subjunctive in English on this site, but was told that there exist no such thing. When I verified, however, subjunctive form in English does actually exist. Just that it is rarely taught in school.

My question is how is subjunctive used in English? Is it the same in in English as in Spanish? Is it correct to say: before the lion start to come at us, we should not run.( Notice the the verb start isn't in singular form)

closed as too broad by Lynn, anongoodnurse, Armen Ծիրունյան, Mitch, Chenmunka Nov 9 '14 at 18:49

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    I think this question is too broad as asked. You might try consulting some basic grammar guides online and try to narrow down your question. As an aside, though, your sample sentence: "Before the lion start..." is not grammatical. In fact, I'm not sure what it's trying to say. – Lynn Nov 9 '14 at 5:01
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    Searching Shakespeare, he often used the subjunctive in before clauses: "Kneel to the duke before he pass the abbey." and "Before he go to bed. I'll take my leave." But today, nobody does. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '14 at 13:12
  • Lynn, yeah, I think unless is a better word – most venerable sir Nov 9 '14 at 16:47

The English subjunctive is used but only in a very reduced form. In any case, it is not used as in Spanish or French, especially not for doubt, uncertainty or subjective judgements. The present subjunctive is used for wish formulas, the past subjunctive as irrealis after if and similar conjunctions. And there are some special formulas with subjunctive.


The subjuntive is rarely used in spoken English, being generally subsituted by infinitive, gerund ot infinitive constructions. Exceptions include, "It's time we went", "If I were you", "God bless America" "He insists that it be analysed". In your example, which is incorrect English, the verb "start" is in fact the present subjunctive,which is the same as the bare infinitive, See the last two examples above.


"The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery as soon as possible."

Maugham, WS (1949) A Writer’s Notebook

There is no clear answer to the question of whether modern British English has a subjunctive form or not. I have always felt that there is little point in talking of a past subjunctive when only one verb, BE, has a recognisably different form for the so-called 'past subjunctive', first and third person singular were. Huddleston & Pullum, in The Cambridge Grammar of Modern English(2002.86-88), consider there is no justification for a speaking of a past-subjunctive mood; They write "It is much more plausible to say that irrealis were is an unstable remnant of an earlier system - a system that has otherwise been replaced by one in which the preterite [= indicative - tunny] has expanded its use in such a way that it now serves to express modal politeness as well as past time". Quirk et al, in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language" (1985.155) do consider this to be a subjunctive form, but concede that it exists in practice only as a 'WERE Subjunctive'. Many speakers today to not use this form at all, except in the fossilised expression 'If I were you'; even here, was is commonly heard.

(Incidentally, for those who consider the use of was 'uneducated', I have a list of its use and/or defence by lexicographers, teachers, professors (of Logic, English Language and Literature, Linguistics) including:.

Sir Alfred Ayer, R W Burchfield, Sylvia Chalker, Sidney Greenbaum, Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey Leech, Somerset Maugham, Tom McArthur, Geoffrey Pullum, Lord Randolph Quirk, Jan Svartik, Michael Swan, G H Vallins, Edmund Weiner, George Yule, etc.)

The present subjunctive (recognisable only in absence of the -s suffix in the third person of all verbs except BE, whose subjunctive form is be in all persons) is used by some people, especially in more formal writing. However, for the majority of native speakers, it survives only in such semi-fossilised expressions as *Long live the Queen".


before the lion start to come at us, we should not run

The linguistic situations still exist that were formerly marked by changes in the verb labelled "subjunctive forms", but today those changes to the verb have become streamlined. A shift to the past tense often marks such a situation. The language has also evolved periphrases using modal verb forms (could, should, would plus infinitive) for situations where a self-contained subjunctive verb form would have been used in the past.

In the US, 50 years ago, one might have said: "Should the rhino charge, stand your ground." Today most speakers would say, "If the rhino charges, stand your ground".

"If I were a rich man" today would often be "If I was a rich man".

You need to recognize the subjunctive forms in texts, and you need to know the streamlined shifts and periphrases used in modern everyday speech.

  • It should be noted that nobody would use the subjunctive today in "before the lion start to come at us, we should not run". This usage would have been correct for Shakespeare. But today, even in the U.S. (where the mandative subjunctive is still commonly used) it would be wrong. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '14 at 12:48
  • I saw if I were when I was reading the Times – most venerable sir Nov 9 '14 at 17:23
  • @Peter Shor: agreed. I was quoting the OP's example. Did not mean to imply it was correct. – TRomano Nov 9 '14 at 19:52

Yes, it is still commonly used and preferred for statements that are not factual. The indicative mood is meant to express facts.

There is a declining use of the subjunctive in English, and the branch of it, the optative in Indo-European, is not used at all any more.

"If I be late...." is preferable to "If I am late...." and makes clear the tentative nature of the statement. Past forms are more complex but can have a definite beauty in their expression, as this quote from Queen Elizabeth, Tudor, where "I had not...remained" is a past subjunctive:

"From the which if either ambition of high estate offered to me in marriage by the pleasure and appointment of my prince ... or if the eschewing of the danger of my enemies or the avoiding of the peril of death ... could have drawn or dissuaded me from this kind of life, I had not now remained in this estate wherein you see me."

Your sentence, "Before the lion start to come at us....", is incorrect because it states a factual situation, that the lion will, in fact, come at you, but has just not yet done so. "If the lion start to come at us...." would be correct. In this case, "start" is not an infinitive, but the third-person present subjunctive. It is coincidence that the infinitive in this case has the same form.

It is interesting to note that the conversion of an indicative to a subjunctive form as in "was" to "were" was accomplished in Protoindoeuropean by the addition of a vowel to a stem of the verb. That this is still true is an echo of a language spoken over 9,000 years ago.

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    If I be late????? Talkest thou still in that manner? Why? Nobody else does. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '14 at 12:50
  • “There is a declining use of the subjunctive in English, and the branch of it, the optative in Indo-European, is not used at all any more.” — On the contrary. The Proto-Indo-European optative is in declining use in English, where it is called the subjunctive; and the PIE subjunctive itself has not existed as a category in any Germanic language for at least 2,000 years, probably more. The fact that were has an extra vowel compared to was is completely coincidental: the two formations are quite unrelated. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 30 '15 at 19:36
  • Additionally, using the subjunctive after before (or more archaically ere) is perfectly fine in the same archaising registers where if + subjunctive would be acceptable. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 30 '15 at 19:38

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