Often English grammar (as well as Koinê Greek, e.g "deponent", and probably others), has often been ruled by what I call "totalitarian grammarians" who impose Latin structures on it rather than doing a thorough internal study of the language; this is part of why the rules of classic English grammar can be so convoluted. (My father couldn't make any sense out of grammar in grade school but after studying linguistics is now a grammarian). Has English historically had a subjunctive, or is that an imposition of a Latin form upon the English construct that translates it? In other words, is there a more accurate description of what is often termed subjunctive in English?

  • Interesting slant on the subjunctive! Most people are concerned because it's dying out, so there are always going to be people harking back to earlier usages which they think are "historically correct". You seem to imply some earlier "golden age" before the subjunctive was foisted on our erstwhile pure language. I'm not a historical linguist, but I don't think that idea will fly. Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 2:58
  • I think the allegations of imposition of Latin grammar onto English are greatly exaggerated. The only two rules I can think of that are clearly from Latin are the rule against splitting an infinitive and the rule against stranding prepositions, and the former rule had other motivations as well. Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 22:17

1 Answer 1


Old English most certainly had a subjunctive. In fact, it had two, present and preterite, and they were inflected for person and number.

English now has three kinds of subjunctive (perhaps two, see below), the mandative, the formulaic and the were–subjunctive. The mandative is seen in sentences such as ‘I demand that he go.’ The formulaic appears in fixed expressions such as ‘come what may’, ‘heaven forbid’ and ‘suffice it to say’, while the were–subjunctive is an alternative to the indicative in clauses like ‘if I were you’.

The formulaic subjunctive is likely to be with us for as long as we used the fixed expressions that use it. The other two kinds are increasingly rare. The mandative subjunctive is probably found more in AmEng than in BrEng, which tends to favour the indicative or a construction with ‘should’. As Pam Peters says in 'The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, ‘the motivation for using the were–subjunctive is stylistic rather than grammatical.' The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ do not even regard it as subjunctive at all, describing it instead as ‘irrealis were’.

  • Strange; speaking as a Canadian, I would say that most of our use of the mandative subjunctive is in an effort to sound more British and less American o_O Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 8:47
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    Then it is perhaps in an effort to sound more like what you think we in Britain say, or to sound more like what we used to say. Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 9:42
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    I don't think the mandative subjunctive is in any danger of dying out in American English; it's quite healthy. The were-subjunctive, on the other hand, seems almost gone. Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 13:30
  • I hear people saying if I were all the time. If I were you...
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 12:01
  • The Old English subjunctive was inflected for number, but not for person. Thus, the present subjunctive had two forms (singular and plural), and so did the past subjunctive. Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 21:56

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