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I have generally (I would say always, but I'm not sure I always thought this) supposed that in English, uses of the subjunctive are quite limited. They include desires, judgments, etc. ("I desire that she go"), general propositions ("the very idea that he marry her"), assorted hypotheticals involving to be ("If I were mad"), and some archaic expressions that you can find in Shakespeare.

Now, in pursuing a question for someone, I find myself confronted with the possibility that many ordinary conditionals in English are in fact subjunctive-carriers. Some sources omit mention of the subjunctive; some state that it's only the "type two" conditional that takes the subjunctive ("If I got up early every morning..."); and some seem to imply that just about every conditional statement is really a subjunctive one.

My first point of concession is that, on some inspection, this so called second type might really be a subjunctive after all; if the protasis "if I were" is subjunctive, then "if I liked" must be as well.

But after this point, it gets quite murky. Do you really mean to say that a standard pluperfect conditional construction, such as "If I had gone along, I would have had fun" really contains the subjunctive mood in one or both pieces?

Now that I think about it, the indicative mood doesn't seem quite right, and surely there must be some mood happening, but the subjunctive? One thing that I am quite sure of is that in this kind of conditional, there is nothing about it that would ever differentiate it from indicative anyway: "If I had gone along" and "I had gone along" have no difference in inflection.

Does that mean that the subjunctive is imputed simply by virtue of uncertainty or doubt? That would mean that the most simple type of conditional, a present-future conditional, is subjunctive also: "If I fail, you'll hate me". The thing is, the more I inspect these fragments, the more conceivable it becomes; aren't we really saying "given that I fail", which has the look of a subjunctive to it?

However, this is where I hesitate. If mere doubt is the condition to require the subjunctive mood, that would mean that "I'm not sure if he is rich" is subjunctive, when we know that it is not, and that to try to employ it ("I'm not sure if he be rich") makes us sound like a pirate.

Maybe I have the sound of French teachers too much in my ear, telling me that the subjunctive is rarely used in English in comparison with the far more robust French equivalent. Can someone please sort this out?

  • You would never say "If I fall, he rescue me". I think that means ordinary conditionals are not carriers of the subjunctive in any real sense. On the other hand, comparing "I hope he comes", "I hope he is coming" with "I wish he would come", "I wish he were coming", I think you can make a good case that "would come" is in the subjunctive mood in the latter. – Peter Shor Feb 21 '15 at 19:17
  • @PeterShor: The main clause of a conditional sentence (if..., [then]...) is never in the subjunctive in modern English; it only occurs in the if clause. In other types of sentence, such as ones with a that clause, there may be a subjunctive in other places. – Cerberus Feb 21 '15 at 19:20
  • @Cerberus: right; I got it backwards. The right comparison is: "If he fall, I will rescue him", which sounds like something from Shakespeare. – Peter Shor Feb 21 '15 at 19:30
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    Let me just say that it's refreshing to see such a well-spoken, comprehensively reasoned question here. After all the "Which sentence is is correct?" and "Check my grammer" questions, this is a breath of fresh air. +1 and welcome to ELU. – Robusto Feb 21 '15 at 19:37
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    You must remember that criteria can be one-way streets. Irreality/uncertainty and counterfactuality are the main subjunctive triggers in English, and when a subjunctive is used, you can be fairly sure that one of them is present. That doesn't necessarily mean that all cases where one of them is present must be a subjunctive. A -> B does not mean that B -> A. (Simple example: all negative statements are counterfactual, but negating a verb obviously does not automatically force a subjunctive.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 21 '15 at 20:07
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Conditions are not necessarily in the subjunctive mood in English, nor are sentences with doubt necessarily in the subjunctive. There was never a one-to-one connexion between mood and semantics in English (nor in most other languages).

However, the if clauses in hypothetical sentences are conventionally always in the past subjunctive in English. Hypothetical in this context means that what is described is counterfactual, not actually the case. This includes sentences like If I liked cheese, I would eat that (but I don't), and basically almost all other sentences with if [verb resembling past tense], (then) ... would...

An exception are sentences where the if clause is really about something in the past: if he was home until 8, that means the bullet must have been fired between 8 and 9.

Whether or not this would is subjunctive is I believe a matter of debate, but I would say would is a subjunctive unless it actually refers to the past, as in he said he would leave the country immediately.

In older English, non-hypothetical conditionals could also take the subjunctive mood, like #if this be the answer, then how shall we proceed? But notice that this is the present subjunctive, not the past subjunctive as in hypothetical conditionals.

  • Did you mean “then how shall we proceed?” at the end there? Subjunctive overload. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 21 '15 at 20:03
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Haha, oops. – Cerberus Feb 21 '15 at 21:11
  • @Cerberus To your fist point-- of course, that is true. However, in English it seems rather difficult at times because there are situations in which there is no inflection in any person to show that the mood has changed. "If I liked cheese, I would eat it" makes sense as a subjunctive since, as you point out, it is a counterfactual, however, the first part is grammatically identical to the plain old "I liked cheese". This holds for all persons if I'm not mistaken ("If he liked cheese", "If you liked cheese", etc.). – Albatrosspro Feb 21 '15 at 22:30
  • The same thing is true for the past perfect if had/would have: "If he had studied harder, he would have made honor roll." Perhaps both of these parts are subjunctives, but neither appears different from standard indicatives when you remove the conditionality: "He had studied harder..." and "He made honor roll". I believe that is because both use participles. From this standpoint, declaring something a subjunctive with no apparent inflective change in any person is a somewhat abstract concept, again, unless I'm missing something. – Albatrosspro Feb 21 '15 at 22:38
  • Quick correction to the above: I believe that in my last example, the second half of the sentence shows evidence of the subjunctive while the first part, being a past perfect, is uninflected. "If he had studied harder" is not different from "he had studied harder..." However, "he would have made honor roll" shows a subjunctive in "have", which would read "had" otherwise: "he had made honor roll". I hope I'm not lost here. – Albatrosspro Feb 21 '15 at 22:45

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