The sentence I am unsure about is:

A rigid adherence to the doctrine of precedent would have resulted in a country where segregation was lawful but minimum wages were not.

I'm confused by the subjunctive, and in particular the proper usages of 'was' and 'were'. Are they used properly above?

  • Yes. Segregation - singular/mass; wages - plural.
    – Jim
    Feb 28, 2016 at 1:49
  • Would 'segregation were lawful' also be correct? For example, my understanding is that the phrase 'If I were rich ...' is grammatically correct, even though it uses the singular. Feb 28, 2016 at 2:03
  • The original seems fine to me. "Segregation" is singular, as Jim says, and is "third person". "If I were rich ..." is using the past subjunctive, a different critter entirely.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 28, 2016 at 4:39
  • 1
    What makes you think the clause headed by where is in the subjunctive mood?
    – user140086
    Feb 28, 2016 at 5:51

1 Answer 1


The subjunctive mood is used in two types of constructions. The first is to express a condition that's hypothetical, doubtful, or contrary to fact:

If segregation were to remain lawful, then we would be ruled by a rigid adherence to the doctrine of precedent.

In your example, the country under discussion may be semantically hypothetical, but its description, i.e., the modifying clause beginning with where, is not, so the verb is the indicative was, not the subjunctive were.

The subjunctive appears in present or ongoing conditions in the present tense:

If music be the food of love, play on

(as opposed to past conditions:

If music were once the food of love, it is no more.)

But the present subjunctive is disappearing, and most people are comfortable with

If music is the food of love, let's go to a buffet.

The second construct involves verbs that ask, demand, regret, recommend, and prefer:

The Supreme Court ordered that legal segregation be abolished, although southern states preferred that it remain.

Note that the subjunctive is hidden in some formulaic imperatives:

Let it be.
Long live the Queen!

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