I'm pretty sure Shakespeare used the subjunctive. I'm not sure about Chaucer and I haven't a clue whether it is used in Beowulf. Has the subjunctive always existed in English, even as far back as Old English? If not, roughly when did it start being used?

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    It goes back to proto-Indo-European (although the original PIE subjunctive and the optative got combined in the ancestors of English). – Peter Shor Dec 23 '16 at 14:34
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    It's hanging on for dear life in contemporary English. Actually it's probably more appropriate to say it's all but vanquished/vanished. So to say it exists in contemporary English is a stretch. Remnants of it exist, sometimes in frozen forms. – Arm the good guys in America Dec 23 '16 at 14:41
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    The subjunctive mandative is alive and kicking in examples such as "I demand that it be done" and "I insisted that he meet me". But in Present-day English, subjunctive is a clause construction, not a mood form. Main clause subjunctives like "God save us all", "Perish the thought" are frozen survivals from earlier English. – BillJ Dec 23 '16 at 14:58
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    The question presupposes that there is a subjunctive in English. One distinguished contributor here rejects the term for English constructions, and adherents to CGEL use terminology different from that of other linguists. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '16 at 15:44
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    I strongly recommend reading the French grammarian (now deceased alas): Grammaire linguistique de l'anglais, Henri Adamczewski, Armand Colin His analysis does away with all these categories because he discovered some underlying functions and structures not commonly described by English-speaking grammarians. Some of his stuff is in English but it's mostly for the third person S in the present simple), calling all these things subjunctives is a throwback to Latin structure but does not adequately describe English structure. In any case, I agree with with Edwin Ashworth, in formal terms. – Lambie Dec 23 '16 at 17:10

Short Answer

The subjunctive mood has always existed in English. It in the Old English of Beowulf and in the Middle English of Chaucer and the English of Shakespeare.


The question suggests a misconception that the subjunctive mood is something that was acquired at some stage in the development of English. In fact the subjunctive mood is a feature of Indo-European languages, including the Germanic ancestor of Old English, even if its usage changed during the development of the language into Modern English, where it is much less used than previously.

Web references to the subjunctive in different ancestors of English

General coverage of subjunctive in different languages


Old English (aka Anglo-Saxon) and Middle English etc.



Beowulf subjunctive

Here swice and scolde illustrate the subjunctive mood (N.J.Engberg).


It is ful lasse harm to lete hym pace, Than he shende alle the servantz in the place.

Here shende is subjunctive, used after than.


Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd, Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked or charitable, Thou comest us such a questionable shape that I will speak to thee ...

In this extract from Hamlet the italicized words are in the subjunctive mood.


The subjunctive is used to "express situations that are not yet realized or hypothetical and is typically used for what is imagined, hoped for, demanded or expected. [It has mostly disappeared] because most of the functions are covered by the modals could, would, and should." OED

In English it is almost indistinguishable from the indicative "except in the third person singular where the normal indicative -s ending is absent ... and in the verb to be...." OED

He face rather than faces as in ...it is recommended that he face a tribunal. And in the verb to be : If I were rich instead of if I was rich.

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    The question asks about the origins of the subjunctive, not how it is defined or what it looks like, however. – choster Dec 23 '16 at 18:40
  • oh, sorry, choster, I left out the part about since the very beginning of the language, which David covered well. But in fairness to me, I answered before David's fine explication. But, I might add, this group appears pretty unforgiving in some ways and far too forgiving in others. I would have not asked this kind of question, yet it got 7 up-votes. – karyse Dec 25 '16 at 7:57

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