I was conducting a language assessment test when I was asked to fill out a clause:

  1. He asked what time the train [ was / will / be] leaving.

I would have chosen be to form a subjunctive clause, had the sentence been in the present tense. But now that it is in the past form, I had a hard time deciding. Can be be used, too, here? Or does one have to use was, which would have been my hasty answer in the first place, but forfeiting the possibility to distinguish a subjunctive?

Looking forward to a informative discussion!

  • 2
    What makes you think that an interrogative clause following a verb like ask should ever be subjunctive to begin with? Note that ask here means ‘inquire’, not ‘request’. Jul 26 '17 at 11:30
  • This doesn't seems to be a case of subjunctive to me - the train IS leaving at a certain time, and the person being queried knows the answer. Subjunctive could occur if the train's departure time were to change ;) or rather, if we were to discuss that hypothetical situation.
    – MAA
    Jul 26 '17 at 11:36
  • 4
    Ps- the most natural way for me to complete the sentence given above is, "He asked what time the train would be leaving."
    – MAA
    Jul 26 '17 at 11:38
  • "the train be leaving" is incorrect. You can say "what time the train will be leaving", but that is not a choice here. "the train will leaving" is incorrect. You can say "the train will leave" but that is not a choice here.
    – GEdgar
    Jul 26 '17 at 11:42
  • @GEdgar “The train be leaving” would be fine if a subjunctive construction were called for, e.g., “He asked that the train be leaving immediately”. Jul 26 '17 at 11:49

The types of meanings conveyed by subjunctive constructions in Romance languages usually fall under the concept of "modality." There are special verb forms for subjunctive that appear in every verb with a complete paradigm.

For English on the other hand, "subjunctive" refers to a much more restricted type of construction (see the other answer posted thus far for examples). But English has other constructions for conveying modality to compensate, as it were, for not having a regular subjunctive form, the most common being modal verbs and use of the preterite form (which itself is usually used for past time reference).

So if you want to see some possible ways of phrasing the example sentence, including meanings where a subjunctive might be employed in a Romance language, here are some options.

  1. He asked what time the train would leave. (modal will used for future time w/r/t frame sentence, in preterite form to coincide with tense of frame sentence)
  2. He asked what time the train would be leaving (same meaning, but focusing on the leaving as a process rather than a punctual event).
  3. He asked what time the train left. (assuming the train hadn't actually left, preterite tense is used modally, to emphasize his uncertainty about the timetable).
  4. He asked what time the train was leaving. (similar meaning to #2).

For #1 and #2, I imagine that for some speakers, future forms are used modally, to express uncertainty. Just a hunch...

Sentences with modality in English are tricky to parse and construct in cases where you would already be using modal verbs and preterite form, since the modal meaning is often secondary.


Reported speech does not require the subjunctive, unless the original statement was made with a subjunctive.

Indicative speech is reported indicatively:

  • Joe: What time is the train leaving?

  • Moe (1): He asked me what time the train was leaving. This is reported speech, plain and simple.

  • Moe (2): He asked me what time the train would be leaving. This conveys additional information on how Joe asked the original question. It goes beyond reporting the speech itself, but it's still in the indicative.

Subjunctive speech is reported subjunctively. However, here you come up against the reality that English does not have a past form of the subjunctive, except in maybe some rare cases that you don't find in ordinary speech. So you get the mental state but lose the relative timing, e.g.

  • Joe: It's essential that the train be on time.

  • Moe: He told me it was essential that the train be on time.

To respond directly to your question: out of the three options you were given, the only correct answer would have been "He asked me what time the train was leaving."

  • 1
    I'm not sure if most people would agree with your that "would be" is in the indicative. It looks like a conditional, and while it is functioning as a future-in-the-past, both the future and past in this context have modal-ish meanings
    – herisson
    Jul 26 '17 at 19:33
  • In reported speech, the original speaker's words are reported as they are heard. Jul 27 '17 at 17:19
  • Thank you, this is very helpful. I wasn't sure whether or not there is a past subjunctive form. As mentioned by others, this was a bad example sentence, as it did not require a subjunctive mode. Seems I've been overthinking;) Aug 3 '17 at 12:53

First, I agree that this has nothing to with the subjunctive. It has to do with sequence of tenses, where American English is in flux.

Second, I think either "he asked when the train will be leaving" or "he asked when the train would be leaving" are correct, but mean different things. The first relates to a question asked in the past about an event presumed to take place in the future. The second relates to a question asked in the past about an event presumed to take place between when the question was asked and when the statement is made.

Third, I suspect all but the most fussy speakers would not object to using "he asked when the train was leaving" in place of "he asked when the train would be leaving," but no one would use "he asked when the train was leaving" in place of "he asked when the train will be leaving."


Non-finite clauses are found in almost all languages in the world, even in computer languages.

Non-finite clauses are borne out of the ingenious human laziness of wanting to have stateless-functional clauses that can be deployed anytime, anywhere, anyhow with as little or no modification at all.

Of late, stateless functional modules are all the rage in information technology.

Non-finite stateless functional usages:

  • I'd rather be leaving you for a season than be dead.
  • You should rather be safe than be sorry.
  • I wish to know if you prefer the train be leaving without you than be late.

{leaving} by itself is already a non-finite.

  • You are very good at leaving me behind.
  • When I was a little girl, my parents were very good at leaving me behind.
  • With such frequent unprotected copulation, after having too many kids, you too will do a pretty good job at leaving a kid behind.

What kind of non-finite is {leaving}? Gerund ending in -ings?.

Verb clauses used in non-finite states can be known as infinitives. What are infinitives actually? It's a flotation of an idea, sometimes with vague definitions, of using verbs in their non-finite states.

  • {Eat}! Please {eat}. I would rather anyone {be eating} too much than be hungry. Why not {eat} when there is free food? Quick, {eat} before the train {be leaving} without you. {To eat} at leisure is a luxury these days. Be good at eating.

Why is {be eating} infinitive use, but {at eating} not. Because {be} itself is the non-finite verb, where {eating} (also a non-finite) is in effect a verb-derived noun. Whereas {at} is not a verb but a preposition.

Whereas in the infinitive clause {to eat}, {to} is a preposition, and {eat} is the non-finite use of a verb.

Subjunctive? Just as with the vague definition of infinitives, subjunctives are also a highly misunderstood set of non-finite use.

Subjunctives are a mode of non-finite usage where the story or part of the story operates in imaginary time. Therefore, classical grammarians, in a fit of discomfort and vagueness threw in the towel and called subjunctive usage a "mood".

Subjunctives are equivalent to imaginary numbers in Number Theory, {a + ib}. Most physical phenomena is composed of both real and imaginary components. Like electromagnetic waves for example. So, it is nonsensical to say if anything we encounter are totally real or imaginary.

Similarly, most stories we want to tell exist in a mix of real and imaginary time. Therefore, it is illogical and nonsensical to say definitively "ah this sentence is subjunctive, but that is not". Like any physical phenomenon, subjunctive is a continuum. Some stories are more subjunctive, while some are less.

  • That I be leaving you for a better man, is a drawn conclusion.
  • That I am leaving you for a better man, is a drawn conclusion.
  • Don't leave me pondering that the train be leaving without you.
  • Don't leave me pondering that the train be leaving without you, if you don't hurry up.

But non-scientific/non-mathematical linguists don't seem to like the vagueness of a continuum, so that they concocted quantisation to attempt to categorise the subjunctive continuum into artificial and sometimes non-realistic buckets such as propositional, exhortative, impossibility, possibility, generalization, doubt, blah, blah, blah. Not realising that most actual situations, a story is a combination of such buckets.

So much so that now, the school of categorised-subjunctivitis is invading into the pantry of the school of infinitives.

  • This answer seems to be mixing up the current, accidental morphological coalescence of the present subjunctive and the infinitive (and the imperative) in Modern English with the category of subjunctive, which predates this coalescence by centuries and describes what is absolutely a finite mood. It also doesn't really answer the question at all. Jul 26 '17 at 14:20
  • You don't seem too happy with my critique of the situation, by your intoxication with needing to bucketize non-finite use and your denial of subjunctive essentially operating in imaginary time. Especially your irrelevant mention of "finite mood". Jul 26 '17 at 14:34
  • You're the one bringing up finiteness, not me. You're also the one claiming that subjunctives are non-finite, which they are not. And that subjunctives are a property of ‘stories’, which they're not. Jul 26 '17 at 14:39
  • Subjunctives are not a verb. They are clauses. Rather, they are reflected in clauses. Jul 27 '17 at 2:57
  • 1
    Not in French, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, etc. And don't claim you were only talking about English, since you start your answer with Non-finite clauses are found in almost all languages in the world. Jul 29 '17 at 1:42

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