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Here are some examples.

"Until the Son of God appear" What I was taught: Subjunctive of indefinite future.

"It is required that the applicant be 18 years old and possess a valid driver's license." What I was taught: mandative subjunctive.

"Where be ye going," said the false knight on the road?" What I was taught: subjunctive of direct discourse.

"If I were you, which we both are thankful I am not, I wouldn't do that. What I was taught: The subjunctive mood is used for supposition contrary to fact.

"I dreamed I were a fireman in my Maidenform bra." What I was taught: The subjunctive mood can be used with words like dream.

"God bless you." I don't remember, so obviously I wasn't taught.

I can live with Pluto's not being a planet, but I must say it's irksome to find that so much of what I was told about English turns out to be nonsense.

  • 2
    Yes and no. The subjunctive exists, though it is not a mood form but a clause construction headed by a plain form verb (infinitival), as in It is essential that I be kept informed. Note that the "were" in "If I were you" is often called the "past subjunctive", though it is not a subjunctive form at all, but "irrealis", a mood form restricted to "were" and limited to 1st and 3rd person singular. – BillJ Dec 1 '16 at 16:38
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    That was me. And it's true. There are two rare constructions in English that are totally different (one is hypothetical and the other is counterfactual) that are both called "subjunctive". Since they are subjunctive, that is the explanation; just say "subjunctive", and look wise. It might as well be called "sarsaparilla" for all the explaining it does. And, @Airymouse, I too am irked that so much BS is taught to children under the rubric of "grammar". As a professional grammarian, I have to deal with the result; this is why so much college is remedial these days. – John Lawler Dec 1 '16 at 17:01
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    You already have the labels; subjunctive construction (not mood) for those clauses headed by a plain verb-form, and irrealis mood for those with "were". There's nothing tedious about this; in fact it's quite interesting. And you can't just replace the term "subjunctive clause" with something else; it's widely accepted as the name for (leaving aside imperatives) a distinct construction that is finite but tenseless. – BillJ Dec 1 '16 at 19:28
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    You can call your dog "Obama", "Clinton", or "Trump". But it doesn't change the fact that it is a dog. The name is not that important. The most important thing is why this construction is happening in English and what this is really about. – user140086 Dec 1 '16 at 20:46
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    He was taught "English" which includes composition and literature, but not anything about the language. This despite the constant admonitions to use "proper" language, which is usually a catechism of shibboleths that thou shalt not use. – John Lawler Dec 2 '16 at 3:26
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Unfortunately, learning names - such as subjunctive - does not necessarily constitute knowledge (on this see the humorous interview of Richard Feynman on the name of birds).

A difficulty of English grammar

What makes English grammar sometimes difficult to understand, especially for native speakers, is that it has very few inflections. Whereas in other languages (French, Italian), you would have different forms for infinitive, subjunctive, etc., in English the same "atom" has to be repurposed for many uses.

This economy of means is a truly remarkable feature of the English language and it might be a factor in the ease with which foreigners can learn it. On the other hand, that could also be a drawback in some cases.

For example eat in English could translate (among others) into French as:

  • manger (infinitive)
  • mange (1st/3rd person singular or imperative)
  • manges (2st person singular)

In those more inflected languages, grammar is often easier to learn, because it may be sufficient to look at the word itself to understand its function. And since categorizing things by shape rather than meaning is far easier, grammar may appear clearer on that account. In a language such as English, people are more liable to get confused when the same form is used to mean different things (polysemy).

Back to your question, we are dealing with two distinct phenomena:

Infinitive used as imperative, third person

God bless you.

It is required that the applicant be 18 years old and possess a valid driver's license.

What you were taught is a mandative subjunctive, in reality conveys an idea of imperative of the 3rd person (which could be said existed in Latin: caveat emptor: the buyer must beware; but it was also the form of the subjunctive). Since most Western languages of the Middle Ages are sadly missing this useful form, they had to resort the same gimmick: so they used prevalently the subjunctive form to convey that idea.

Que Dieu vous bénisse.

Nous exigeons que le candidat ait 18 ans.

Since (modern) English did not have even that tense (formally), it fell back to infinitive. Now, why English grammarians called their repurposed infinitive a subjunctive, instead of an imperative is (my guess) because they wanted to align their terminology on French, which used to be the aristocratic language under the Anglo-Norman monarchy and then remained a language of culture.

While the solution of the grammarians may have been handy, we could argue they could have carried their reasoning to its logical conclusion. Regardless of how we conventionally call this bird (there would not be a sufficient case to abolish the term subjunctive), it is semantically an imperative.

Simple past used as a hypothetical condition

If I were you, which we both are thankful I am not, I wouldn't do that.

In that case, it seems a calque (loan) from French:

Si j'étais vous (...)

... which was the imperfect (and not the French simple past), which kind of makes sense: the condition is not realized.

Unfortunately, the simple past in English is also used to convey the imperfect when needed. In this case again, a simple linguistic device was thrown into the big cauldron of polysemy. The problem is that the meaning of "if I were you", is easily understandable intuitively, but to explain why it takes this form becomes difficult, unless one already has notions of other languages.

Back to your "if I were", this pretended subjunctive is actually used to build a conditional sentence, which would be, in French:

Si j'étais vous, je ne ferais pas cela.

Again, English is lacking the inflections necessary for the conditional, which is why the auxiliary form would (invariable) is used. Hence:

If I were you, I would not do that.

As for:

I dreamed I were a fireman.

It is a simple past form ("I were" used to be common, before it became obsolete). While it has gone out of usage for most cases, it has remained acceptable for expressing unreal situations -- likely by analogy with the previous case, or perhaps a kind of attraction -- and it is conventionally called subjunctive. Actually, one would easily use the modern form and (at the cost of losing an almost imperceptible nuance) it might communicate the idea just as well:

I dreamed I was a fireman.

  • +1, it's very well explained. Side note : you can remove the "(...)" in "Si j'étais vous (...), je ne ferais pas cela." – Irhala Dec 2 '16 at 9:16
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    I understand your reservation about this. Grammatical imperative does not, however, imply an imperative order; it can also be also be used for requests or invitations (please take a seat). In Latin, using it with God was not an issue: Benedicat tibi deus so we could safely take this as a precedent. – fralau Dec 2 '16 at 16:20
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    No, si j’étais vous is in the indicative not the subjunctive. But you won’t find many instances of si je fusse these days, nor even que je fusse, which is ever so slightly somewhat less rare in writing. Other Romance tongues preserve an imperfect subjunctive there even in the spoken language, but not French. – tchrist Dec 3 '16 at 0:40
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    The use of the subjunctive for commands was already present in Old English, where the subjunctive was actually conjugated differently from the indicative. It could not possibly have come from Norman French. And the only reason that the subjunctive is identical to the infinitive today is that the endings were lost during Middle English. – Peter Shor Dec 4 '16 at 13:14
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    Certainly: that is the whole point. When Old English lost the inflections and before grammarians had come of age, people obviously started losing sight of the old subjunctive (it is not likely that they were consciously thinking "oh I am using a subjunctive though we lost the inflection"). So when the language became "re-formalized" grammarians had to to fill the gap with an ex-post reasoning; or perhaps there was indeed some "ghost" usage remaining. But my point was that subjunctive in Modern English is made complicated by the lack of inflections. – fralau Dec 4 '16 at 13:38
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Where be ye going?

This is not the subjunctive, it's an alternative conjugation of the verb to be which was used alongside the regular conjugation until the 17th Century, and is still present in some dialects of English.

I am, thou art, he is, we are, ye are, they are.

I be, thou beest, he is, we be, ye be, they be.

See this webpage.

The King James Bible uses both be and are for the indicative of verbs in the plural, although it uses the standard forms in the singular.

The rest of your examples really are some of the many uses of the subjunctive in Early Modern English.

There are only two common uses of the subjunctive left in current speech—the mandative subjunctive:

Calvin the Bold demands that he be addressed by his full title.

This is common in American English, less so in British English.

And the use of were for some hypothetical situations.

If I were a tiger, that would be neat!

This one is gradually being replaced with "If I was ..."

These two constructions look completely different now, so some grammarians decided it would be less confusing if we called the were-subjunctive the irrealis instead. So some people here insist that this is not a subjunctive, even though it is descended from one of a wide class of subjunctive uses in Middle English, which in turn were descendants of the subjunctive conjugation in Indo-European, just like the subjunctive conjugations in Romance languages.

  • I agree with what you say, with one proviso: the passage from Early Middle all the way to Modern English and the work of the first grammarians of Modern English were two distinct phenomena (the first being organic over a population, the second being intentional on the part of individuals). The discussion stems from the collision of ex-post views of grammarians, with the natural evolution process of the language. Rather than arguing pro or against the use of the term subjunctive, it might be better to emphasize how it is not an open and shut question. – fralau Dec 4 '16 at 11:35
  • 'Some people here insist.' The major problem with this site. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 4 '16 at 11:49
  • We can live with this, as long as "they" are not trying to enforce some grammatical dogmas. – fralau Dec 4 '16 at 12:21
  • @fralau: I agree the terminology is not an open-and-shut question. There's a history of the grammatical treatment of the subjunctive here. The earliest English grammarians seem to have been somewhat confused about it, but some grammarians settled on both the term and description in the mid-18th century, when the subjunctive was much more widely used than it is today. Undoubtedly, the term came from the analogy with Latin. – Peter Shor Dec 4 '16 at 14:17
  • That is interesting information: according to it, my guess that French was taken as model seems to have not been complete. Indeed, since Latin was part of an educated person's curriculum and it was "well-formed" (in terms of inflections), it makes sense. For the exemplification, however " Brightland and Gildon’s subjunctive examples were translated from French, which is not surprising considering that their grammar relied on the Port-Royal grammar." – fralau Dec 4 '16 at 14:43

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