It looks to me a subjunctive form but not contemporary, so I would like to ask how this is properly interpreted gramatically.

In the second conditional “if it were” it is clearly subjunctive, but the first conditional it would normally be written as “if it is”.

Why is it subjunctive? And when is it proper style?

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    Yes, it is a present subjunctive in that case. If sometimes got the present subjunctive in older English. Jun 10, 2016 at 3:13
  • Thank you, @Cerberus. When is it proper style to use, I mean would this be proper in an every day conversation or is it much more literary than that?
    – ib11
    Jun 10, 2016 at 3:15
  • If it is, so be it.
    – Kris
    Jun 10, 2016 at 7:37
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    could you provide examples of usage of "if it be" in context? otherwise it's unclear what you're asking Nov 16, 2019 at 16:43
  • Other phrases with the present subjective: "So be it" ( =let it be so) "Albeit" ( = although it may be) Note: the first one could also be considered a kind of old imperative,as the current imperative is essentialy the same as the present subjunctive. The two are often equivalent in modern European languages (French: 'soyez' and Spanish "sea") Jul 14, 2020 at 17:02

3 Answers 3


The present subjunctive is almost gone in contemporary English. Only residual expressions are used such as

If need be: provided it is necessary

Come hell or high water: no matter what happens

Be it good or bad: whether it is good or bad

Of course, you can say "If it be rainy tomorrow" if you want to sound archaic like someone who time-traveled from the past. I wouldn't use it in everyday conversation.

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    I see. I also see that this question covers "if need be". So I guess than this is the same case of subjunctive for the first conditional. Now you say if I want to sound like a "time traveler" but what about sounding learnt or even poetic. That would work, no?
    – ib11
    Jun 10, 2016 at 6:37
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    @ib11 You can write whatever you want if you want to sound poetic. But I don't think it sounds learned. Others might differ.
    – user140086
    Jun 10, 2016 at 6:46
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    It is nice to use such expressions in the right situations. Use your social skills to ensure that you don't sound bombastic or unduly affected. Jun 10, 2016 at 12:47

If it be

Is it used? Yes. But mostly poetically and within ritualistic practices like church where I've heard it because of its persistence relevant to the Bible, drama class given Shakespeare's influence, and court proceedings.

How frequently? Certainly not on a construction site anecdotally. A quick google turns up 14 million hits of the construction:

This song title by the Lost Dogs
Lyrics by Leonard Cohen
If It Be Not I by a Mona Van Duyn
If it Be Not Fair in the New Yorker
References to the Bible such as here

I've personally heard it used in conversation, but usually from the erudite. Certainly not among children, English language-learners, and those who speak dialects related to their first-language. I know I have used it, but I tend towards the construction: "Be it that..." I certainly would code-switch in public as a general rule.

As for the subjunctive generally

Grammatical forms explicitly using the subjunctive are used at various rates among various language communities. In any spoken and written language, usage diverges considerably from subculture to subculture. If you were to ask me, (and yes I use the subjunctive even in spoken English as a native speaker), I would say that the use of the subjunctive probably still occurs at a higher rate among populations like English professors and philosophy majors than among poor, immigrant communities, and that the use of the subjunctive is used more than recognized because of the way it subtly alters syntax. From WP on English subjunctive:

In Modern English, the subjunctive form of a verb often looks identical to the indicative form, and thus subjunctives are not a very visible grammatical feature of English.

Also, two divergent practices can last side-by-side in languages for many hundreds of years as in the case of using 'they' as a third-person singular in place of 'he or she'. Be that as it may, certainly in the US, instruction in grammar declined in the '60s, my understanding being that there were concerns regarding its effects on marginalizing minority communities.

Those of us who speak in hypotheticals frequently, we academic sorts, find the subjunctive a very important tool because it makes obvious the conditional nature of the proposition. Is it almost dead? I don't believe that to be the case. Many people still use "to whom", for instance, or answer the phone "this is she". In fact, some expressions still require the subjunctive as there are no alternative formulations. (See link below for examples). I imagine the subjunctive never completely die, and will continue on in some form as it has since the 'olden days'.



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    The present subjunctive is indeed reasonably common in today's American English, but it is only used very, very rarely in "if" clauses. From the Wikipedia page you quote, "The present subjunctive is occasionally found in clauses expressing a probable condition, such as If I be found guilty … This usage is mostly old-fashioned or excessively formal, although it is found in some common fixed expressions such as if need be." Nov 16, 2019 at 19:34
  • Thanks. I didn't read the question carefully. I'll edit to include. I might argue that it's still used among the very literate. See newyorker.com/magazine/1929/08/24/if-it-be-not-fair, abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/intothemusic/…, nytimes.com/1900/01/07/archives/…. I had over 14 millions hits when I googled.
    – J D
    Nov 16, 2019 at 20:11
  • Edited, thanks! If it be such that you object to that characterization, let me know. ; )
    – J D
    Nov 16, 2019 at 20:26

There is scarcely a situation where it is required any more to do so — in fact, many native speakers will perceive it as ungrammatical nowadays. However there is certainly a time and a place where it will at the very least be acceptable. In a formal setting where the audience may be assumed more learned, a sentence like "If the setting be appropriate, a zero-conditional subjunctive would not stand amiss." is certainly not frowned upon, but neither would the indicative, or "should be" be.

It should be noted that the subjunctive is never to be used for non-hypothetical conditionals with "if", such as "If it is okay with you, I shall take my leave now."; in this specific context, it is or is not okay with the listener, so the indicative is always to be used. The subjunctive is only to be used with an abstract conditional that may, or may not occur.

One might argue that in some cases it offers a different nuance. "I care not whether traps are gay." supposes that there is an actual answer, but whatever the answer is, is irrelevant, whereas "I care not whether traps be gay." sounds more dismissive, and highlights the possibility that the entire debate itself be nonsensical.

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    "If it is okay with you, I shall take my leave for the party now. And if it be okay with the boss when he gets here, you will probably still be able to make it." [?] Nov 16, 2019 at 11:38

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