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It is to my understanding that it is grammatically correct to say:

If I be [something], then [something].

because 'were' is the subjunctive of 'to be'. However, is it correct to use the subjunctive of other words in a similar way? For example:

If he jump, the trampoline will shake.

or

I request that he file these papers.

If it is correct, is it incorrect to use the simple present tense in those contexts?

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    In North America, it is considered incorrect to use the simple present in “I request that he file these papers” instead of the mandative subjunctive as used here. In the British Isles, it is not wholly uncommon to neglect the subjunctive there. In other words, saying “I request that he files” sounds completely and utterly wrong to my ear as an American, but I’ve heard (not necessarily the most careful of) British speakers say that sort of thing.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 0:40
  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/a/96164/2085
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 1:13

3 Answers 3

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Your last example - an indirect command or request - is quite common in formal contexts, such as minutes of meetings, and even in speech for some speakers, though many would say "that he files".

The other examples are much rarer: they are archaic, and few people would use them except in special registers. But anywhere you could use "If I be", you could equally use "If he jump".

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  • What about "should he jump"? That does not seem archaic. Isn't that also subjunctive?
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 22:53
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    It is neither archaic nor subjunctive. It is a complex verb phrase with the auxiliary "should" followed by the bare infinitive "jump". It may be an appropriate translation of a subjunctive in other languages, but does not exhibit a special "subjunctive" form in English, whereas "If he jump" does.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 22:59
  • Thanks for clearing that up. I'd thought "should" was a way to express subjunctive mood in English but had also heard that English has no true subjunctive.
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 0:44
  • It is a way of expressing a meaning which is often expressed by a subjunctive form in other languages, so people sometimes loosely refer to it as subjunctive. In my view this is misleading and unhelpful.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 10:23
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Per this NGram, although technically speaking "If I be [something], then [something]" might be (or at least, was) grammatically correct, it's not a form we use today. Best avoid it, I'd say.

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I'm no grammarian, but personally I think the subjunctive form there would be "If I were wrong" anyway. I don't know what to call OP's version - all I know is if I be and if he jump sound archaic.

On the other hand, "I request that he file these papers" sounds current, if a little formal. And I'm pretty sure that is a standard example of the subjunctive. Bear in mind that, slowly but surely, use of the subjunctive mode is declining. So there are bound to be marginal cases still acceptable to some, but not to others.

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    The difference between "if I be" and "if I were" (historically, present vs. past subjunctive), apart from the fact that the latter is still current for many people, is that "if I were" is counterfactual, but "if I be" is not. The current equivalent for "If I be" is "If I am", not "If I was/were"
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 23:01
  • @Colin Fine: Ah right - I see it now. But the net position for me at least is that "If I be lying then may God strike me dead" sounds archaic/rustic. But "If I were lying then God would have struck me dead" still sounds perfectly reasonable (though "If I had been lying" sounds less formal and more "current"). Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 23:10
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    Yes, but your tenses are a bit confused. If I be ... may God ... is archaic, and has a present non-contrafactual meaning. (The particular content of that prayer implies that the "If" clause is not true, but the grammatical construction does not). If I were ... God would strike ... _ is present contrafactual, _If I had been ... God would have ... is past contrafactual. Both are common but not universal, and the distinction I have made is not observed by everybody who uses the forms.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 23:22
  • @FumbleFingers I always waver on whether to use stricken for the past participle of to strike, or just to use struck.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 0:37
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    @FumbleFingers I don’t think that the mandative subjunctive is in any way declining in North America. It actually sounds wrong to us not to use it.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 0:41
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The verb 'to be' is not special here.

Your examples are correct but only in a stilted, overly formal, hardly used context. In the rare context it would be incorrect to use the simple present.

But if you used those forms nowadays, it would sound strange to most English speakers of most current varieties (exceptions?).

The current pattern is to not use the subjunctive form at all and to use the simple past or present.

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    I have the feeling "to be" is something of a special case in respect of the subjunctive today. It seems to me plenty of people are still happy to say "If I were you". I suspect lots of people don't know/don't like the subjunctive in general, but because "to be" is so common, they'll accept it there because they still hear/read it quite often. Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 23:02
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    @FumbleFingers The hypothetical or past subjunctive is still alive and well, but the present subjunctive is virtually gone, as Mitch correctly observes. You occasionally see it still in formulaics like “whether it be true or not”, but for the most part it is no longer with us. The “were” situation is for something else. “I wish it were so” or “If only it were so” or “Unless it were for a good cause, I wouldn’t do it” are all the living version, but “If any be ready to speak up, let them do so” or “... until he be dead” really doesn’t have much life left in it; it sounds funny.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 0:29

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