I know that when you introduce a statement with 'if,' you are speaking in the subjunctive and therefore use 'were' instead of 'was' (e.g., "If I were to do this thing, something else would happen.").

And the same is true if a statement is introduced with 'wish' (e.g., "I wish it were warmer."). As it is if you begin with 'as though' (e.g, "He said, as though it were cold.").

But it doesn't seem appropriate to use 'were' in all cases of uncertainty (e.g., you wouldn't say "I thought it were cold."). Does saying you thought something was the case simply not qualify as an uncertainty, meaning you shouldn't use the subjunctive? Or is there some subtler logic behind when the subjunctive form is used in English?

  • 2
    (Sigh) I am sorry that you know this, because it is not true. "Subjunctive" is not an invisible mark on the sentence, like "baptism" is an invisible mark on the soul. Rather, it refers to two different kinds of English constructions; one with infinitive (i.e, untensed) verbs in that-complements, for some predicates, in certain impositive constructions,; and one with unusual past forms of some verbs (and specialized person/number forms of be), in certain counterfactual constructions. Neither type is common, or very important. Most native speakers pay no attention to either. Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 5:19
  • What do you mean they're not important? Isn't it incorrect to say, "If I was to do this"? Can you provide a reference for me? (Native speaker here, by the way.) @JohnLawler
    – user108909
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 5:36
  • @CactusHouse "If I was to do this" is correct if you are referring to something that is possible and may occur. In contrast, if you are hypothesizing about an impossible or very unlikely event, you should (must) use the subjunctive: "If I were to do this." Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 6:11
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    There's a limited number of constructions where we use the "were" subjunctive. For example, "I hoped he were coming" sounds wrong, even though "hope" and "wish" have very similar meanings. You can (a) find a list and memorize them or (b) use "was" in any case where you're not sure. Since many native English speakers never use the "were" subjunctive, the second possibility is only wrong when you are taking grammar tests. Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 11:47
  • The behavior of many native English speakers is a rather low standard of comparison ;)
    – user108909
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 15:10

1 Answer 1


Subjunctive form is an attitude, not a defined structure. That is why we call it the subjunctive mood.

The English language has an ill-defined grammatical structure to denote the subjunctive. At least English has a vaguely defined subjunctive structure, than many languages not bothering at all with having even a vague form of subjunctive convention.

Unbeknownst to many who understand the English "subjunctive", the English grammatical term subjunctive is actually only subset of a general subjunctive voice that includes propositional, hypothetical, improvisational, etc. In fact, if you think hard enough, subjunctive situations form a continuum that sometimes could be categorised with difficulty into one of the bucket/pigeon-holes of subjunctives.

That is to say, the English grammatical term subjunctive is not the same as the linguistic term subjunctive.

As a general term, subjunctive is when there exists intention to describe an imaginary situation.

If you understood simple mathematics of real and imaginary numbers, you could say that subjunctive is the imaginary part of the graph. Subjunctive operates in imaginary time. Subjunctive mood shares the same set of temporal tenses with the real mood.

Therefore, regardless what structure you are using, and if you can properly structure your phrase to describe an imaginary situation, you will be speaking in the subjunctive mood, regardless of the tenses used. It just so happens that most of subjunctive situations in our daily English awareness is neatly described by the deployment of past and perfect tenses.

Notice the continuum of "imaginariness", which is sometimes difficult to quantize into grammatical buckets. Like a number can have both real and imaginary parts. So too a predicate. Of course, many "grammarians" perplex themselves into the subjunctivitis obsession of quantization, asking "is this propositional, hypothetical, hyperthetical, english-subjunctive-mood, etc".

  • I can love you if you too love me.
  • I can love you if you too could love me.
  • I could love you if you too could love me.
  • I would love you if you too would love me.
  • I could have loved you, had you too loved me.
  • Could you please love me, if I too love you?
  • Would you please love me, if I too loved you?
  • Would you please love me, if I too had loved you?
  • The can can explode, when placed in heat.
  • The can might explode, when placed in heat.
  • The can could explode, if placed in heat.

There is an advantage in having even a vague subjunctive convention, like English does. It allows English speakers to project ourselves in abject courtesy and humility with fewer words. As my oft example illustrates ...

  • Could you remove your shoes in the porch before coming in?

The speaker is saying,
I don't want to presume that it will be a reality. I am hopeful, but I am prepared to accept that you might not do it. But, I do prefer you taking your shoes off in the porch, hoping for the reality that you could see the disfavour the snowy slush from your shoes would be doing to my living room.

Courtesy as a subjunctive mood is one aspect that non-native speakers of English find difficult to understand, which most of us take for granted.

  • Have you any evidence that grammarians of English use "subjunctive" in this way?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 11:27
  • That's actually not why it's called the subjunctive "mood". But I like the metaphor a lot, and you're dead on about an attitude. I view the English "subjunctive mood" the way an astronomer would view Tycho Brahe's view of the solar system. In that model, the sun revolves about the earth, but all other planets revolve around the sun. It's mathematically equivalent to the standard sol-centric model, but it involves a lot more calculation and handwaving, all in order to maintain the ancient, traditional, comforting, folk view that the Earth is the center. Sic semper subjunctive. Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 16:00
  • @John Lawler - Beautifully said, Professor Lawler. My bible for that is still Curme's 2nd volume. Anything less feels much less grand and chopped off, non-integral. Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 8:46

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