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When should I use the subjunctive mood?

Given the sentence

John brings his lunch to school,

is it correct to say

It is important that John brings his lunch to school

(using the third person singular present form of bring), or

It is important that John bring his lunch to school

(using the infinitive form of bring)?

[Edit: The answers indicate that this is actually the subjunctive form, not infinitive.]

I have been told that the infinitive form is correct, but if this is correct I would like an explanation. It doesn't seem like adding it is important should modify the tense of the rest of the sentence.

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    Re your edit: I stress again that in terms of its syntactic behaviour, it is more like an infinitive than a conjugated form (and "subjunctive" forms in many languages are conjugated forms). I would ask anybody learning a foreign language to please please consider this, because it may have an impact on your understanding of "subjunctive" in other languages (or of this structure in English if you speak a native language with subjunctive forms)! – Neil Coffey Jul 26 '11 at 20:27

Both of your examples are correct. They have different meanings.

It is important that John brings his lunch to school.

In this sentence, brings is indicative and indicates that John does bring his lunch to school, and that fact is important.


It is important that John bring his lunch to school.

In this sentence, bring is subjunctive. The speaker is making an assertion. We don't know whether John brings his lunch to school or not, but the speaker is saying that is is important for him to do so.

Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a matter of personal preference to anyone who has a decent understanding of English. Although people commonly use the indicative instead of the subjunctive, that doesn't make it right.

Which sentence you use depends on the point you are trying to convey. To give a couple of examples where the context makes it more obvious: let's say I want to indicate that a policeman is patrolling the streets well, and people think that's important. I might indicate that he does walk the streets by saying:

It is important that he patrols the streets every night.

On the other hand, it could be the case that a child doesn't like to brush his teeth. He may or may not; we don't know. But I want to say that he should, so I could say:

It is important that he brush his teeth every night.

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  • +1 for pointing out the "correct" meaning of OP's first sentence, which I didn't even recognise at the time. You must admit the chances that OP intends that meaning here are about zero, but that's no reason the rest of us should be denied the chance to use it. I'll flag up your point in my answer. – FumbleFingers Jul 22 '11 at 22:49
  • Best answer, for pointing out the fact that there are actually two subtly different things to be said, and that the two forms are both correct and have different meanings. – mgiuca Jul 23 '11 at 2:10
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    -1 if I could for "Although people commonly use the indicative instead of the subjunctive, that doesn't make it right." This is exactly how language change happens, and this is not a bad thing! I can assure you, in a hundred years, nobody will use the subjunctive, most certainly not in spoken language. As of today, there are some people who make a distinction between subjunctive and indicative, and it's nice to be able to decode this distinction, but other people simply don't use it, and there's nobody on this planet who can say that that is bad. – doncherry Jul 25 '11 at 19:19
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    @doncherry -- I'm not sure that we can say with 100% certainty everything you state, but I've +1'd anyway for the general essence of what you're saying. The notion of "the language works this way, but really it 'should' work this way" is not uncommon, but really quite bizarre when you actually think about it. Unless you really think that the people who invent opinions about how they think the language 'should' work have some kind of direct line with God that is unavailable to the rest of humanity, then there's little intrinsic basis for the notion of "correct even though people don't use it". – Neil Coffey Jul 26 '11 at 20:15

OP's second example is correct, but bring is not an "infinitive" verb form - it's the subjunctive, which happens to look the same in modern English.

The subjunctive mood indicates doubt, supposition, uncertainty, and presumes or imagines an action or state. For example:

  • It is necessary that he retire
  • I strongly recommend that he retire or
  • I strongly recommend that he be retired

It's true that many speakers/writers use retires or is retired in these examples, just as they use brings in OP's example. But I don't think I can go so far as @Neil Coffey and say this is a matter of stylistic choice. It may well become so eventually, but as of now I would classify such usage as either informal or a common error (see LATER below).

Having said that, I accept there are a wide range of sentences where the subjunctive mood applies, and strict application of the form is exceptionally rare. An extreme example is...

  • If he arrive on time, we will eat before going out.

...which it's hard to imagine anyone endorsing today, even though it's "correct". Careful speakers would probably recast the sentence (still in the subjunctive) as...

  • If he were to arrive on time, we would[could] eat before going out.

...but again, many people would simply use the "incorrect" form...

  • If he arrives on time, we will eat before going out.

TL;DR: The subjunctive is not yet dead. Long live the subjunctive! (to those who didn't spot it, live there is in the subjunctive, and as of today, few would replace it with lives).

LATER: @Jez astutlely and clearly makes the point that the first sentence is quite capable of being understood to have a related but significantly different meaning to that intended here. Another good reason not to let the subjunctive die – why should we lose the ability to make that distinction?

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  • See my post below -- these infinitives are not uncontroversially "subjunctive": much of the syntactic evidence doesn't support this view. – Neil Coffey Jul 23 '11 at 0:30
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    The reality is that the distinction between "that he retire" vs "that he retires" is not consistently made by all native speakers and is essentially an arbitrary learned convention. So it only makes sense to call failure to follow this convention an "error" if the speaker in question is deliberately trying to follow that convention and fails to do so. If they are not actually trying to follow that convention, that just because you'd like them to doesn't intrinsically make the natural form they use an "error". – Neil Coffey Jul 23 '11 at 0:44
  • +1 Very helpful in identifying and explaining the subjunctive mood (but I ticked Jez for catching the double meaning). – mgiuca Jul 23 '11 at 2:11
  • @Neil Coffey: You have a very restrictive definition of incorrect speech if all one need do to avoid it is be ignorant of the correct usage. We could save a lot of money on education if we all thought that way. I think anyone who can't understand the distinction made so eloquently by Jez (both semantically and grammatically), is either badly-educated or a true philistine with no love for language. The rest may be prone to "error", but we should try to minimise that happening. – FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 3:38
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    English used to have subjunctive forms, which have now died out. In that process, English has evolved so that various constructions have taken their place, including the 'bare' infinitive/null modal construction ("that he demand") but also the use of modals in general, other constructions such as "him demanding", and indeed simply not making the distinction at atll. What is the invention of overzealous grammarians is that out of all of these, the null modal construction is somehow the "correct" one, or that it "should" always be used. – Neil Coffey Jul 23 '11 at 14:14

This is really a matter of personal preference/linguistic "etiquette". Using the infinitive (which is commonly-- though possibly erroneously-- construed as a "subjunctive" in popular grammar teaching) tends to belong to more formal/learned usage. Of the two, I suspect it's the one that occurs less naturally in everyday usage, and for many speakers may well be used only once learnt artificially rather than being acquired naturally.

Some languages have special verb forms, consistently used and acquired by native speakers, that are used to mark a 'non-assertion' (essentially, something that an assertion that can be agreed/disagreed with). Such forms are usually termed "subjunctive". English actually used to have such forms, but no longer does. Speakers who use the infinitive in forms such as "It is important that John bring..." may be attempting to mimic the presence of a subjunctive form. A potential difference, then, is that in the first example, there are two assertions you can agree with:

"It is important that John brings his lunch to school."

Response A: "Yes, I know it is."

Response B: "Yes, I know he does."

whereas in the second case, only response (A) makes sense:

"It is important that John bring his lunch to school."

Response A: "Yes, I know it is."

Response B: "*Yes, I know he does."

In other languages with subjunctive forms, and in English in the past, speakers make this distinction fairly naturally. For example, in French, any native speaker will generally make judgements similar to the above on sentences such as:

Jean a dit que Marie est partie immédiatement.

(Indicative: "Jean said Marie left immediately.")


Jean a dit que Marie parte immédiatement.

(Subjunctive: "Jean said that Marie leave immediately", i.e. "Jean told Marie to leave", "Jean ordered for Marie to leave")

However, in contemporary English, it's not clear that this distinction isn't just an artificial invention, and one not intuitively made by all native speakers.

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  • Downvoted. This is absolute nonsense. There is a meaningful difference between the 2 sentences; 'brings' should indicate that he IS BRINGING is lunch to school; 'bring' should indicate that he SHOULD BRING his lunch to school. Please, don't let laziness ruin important nuance in the English language. If you're using 'brings' when you mean 'bring', you're wrong. It's not a linguistic preference. – Jez Jul 22 '11 at 22:02
  • I don't think I agree that there is anything dubious or erroneous about calling mandative subjunctive "subjunctive". The forms are identical to the infinitive, sure, but the clauses are indisputably finite. CGEL calls the form "plain", but you use it here specifically because it is mandative subjunctive. – nohat Jul 22 '11 at 23:09
  • Consider *demand*—would anyone say "He demanded that I am here on time" instead of the subjunctive "He demanded that I be here on time" – nohat Jul 22 '11 at 23:12
  • @Jez : there's no intrinsic God-given reason why there "should" be this difference. It's an arbitrary invention that some, but by no means all, speakers attempt to enforce. There really is an important difference between this situation in English and actual subjunctives in languages that have them! – Neil Coffey Jul 23 '11 at 0:26
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    @Jez - but you surely accept that just because you personally have taught yourself to find this painful to hear doesn't mean that there's anything inherently "wrong" with it or that the language must automatically evolve to match your expectation...? It seems bizarre to me that on the one hand people argue so fervently about how this is such a vital distinction, and then on the other hand, it's easy to find cases where speakers don't make the distinction, suggesting that in practice it's just not that vital. – Neil Coffey Jul 23 '11 at 14:02

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