Getting in the (Subjunctive) Mood
Everything you need to know about some tricky verbs
Anyone who's learned a language will not be surprised to find out that languages have moods.
But when we're talking about the language kind of mood (which is etymologically unrelated to the other kind, btw), we're talking about verbs, and what they express. Grammatical mood can be understood as a set of forms of a verb that show what a sentence is up to—that is, whether it's making a statement, giving a command or suggestion, or expressing a wish or a possibility.
English has three moods. The indicative mood is for stating facts and opinions like "That cat is fabulous." The imperative mood is for giving orders and instructions (usually with an understood subject, you), as in "Look at that fabulous cat." The subjunctive mood is for expressing wishes, proposals, suggestions, or imagined situations, as in "I wish I could look at that fabulous cat all day."
As we said above, grammatical moods are about verbs. A subjunctive verb usually appears in a sentence with two clauses: in one clause there's the subjunctive verb, and in the other is an indicative verb. (Reminder: a clause is a group of words that forms a part of a sentence and has its own subject and verb.) For example, in "They suggested that I visit that fabulous cat," "they suggested" is in the indicative mood with suggest as an indicative verb, while "that I visit that fabulous cat" is in the subjunctive with visit as a subjunctive verb. "That I visit that fabulous cat" is a proposal being made with the stated assertion of "they suggested." Suggest is one of a number of verbs that frequently play indicative partner to another verb's subjunctive use. Others include ask, demand, recommend, require, insist, urge, and wish.
The subjunctive is so grammatically unobtrusive as to be hard to notice: in most verbs it calls for a lack of inflection, so it's only noticeable in a context that otherwise calls for inflection. For example, the verb visit in the indicative "I visit that fabulous cat" has the same form as in the subjunctive "They suggested that I visit that fabulous cat." But if we replace I with she, the subjunctive form of the verb visit is noticeably different: in the indicative we have "She visits that fabulous cat"; in the subjunctive it's "They suggested that she visit that fabulous cat."
The subjunctive is most noticeable with the common but grammatically complicated verb be. In the present subjunctive, be staunchly remains be instead of changing to am, are, or is according to its subject. And the past subjunctive form of be is consistently were, even when was would otherwise be the form. A note is necessary here, though, about the terms present subjunctive and past subjunctive: the present subjunctive in truth refers mostly to the future ("I request that the fabulous cat be available during my visit"), while the past subjunctive can refer to the present or the past ("I wish that the fabulous cat were more cooperative"). They have the name they do only because the subjunctive forms look like ordinary past and present forms.
There are two uses for the subjunctive that don't draw much attention. The first is in a number of set phrases that tend to be pretty formal sounding: so be it, be that as it may, come what may, suffice it to say, Heaven forbid, and others. These exist a bit like fossils in the language, always in the same form. The other uncontroversial use is in sentences like the formal and often performative "I demand that the fabulous cat be compelled to present himself during my visit." We see that use following such verbs as ask, demand, propose, suggest, and recommend, and after such phrases as it is advisable and it is necessary.
But with verbs of wishing and in contrary-to-fact conditional clauses, we sometimes see the subjunctive get applied and we sometimes don't, and that's where things get interesting. Here's the subjunctive:
I wish I were a nerd.— Kim Possible (@kimlockhartga) September 5, 2018
And here's the indicative jumping into subjunctive territory:
I wish I was eating tacos right now.— Steph Frosch (@ElloSteph) September 4, 2018
Here's the subjunctive in action in a contrary-to-fact conditional:
me if I were a car horn:— sydney thornton (@soelsister) September 9, 2018
hey the light turned green & i’m kind of in a hurry!! can you please go! only if you want though. sorry. no pressure. it’s fine seriously. sorry. are you mad at me? beep beep :)
And here's the indicative in the same situation:
Sara: if i was the last person on earth, would you date me?— incorrect avalance (@avalanceincrt) September 8, 2018
Ava: Sara, if you were the last person on earth, i wouldn't exist.
The subjunctive is triggered in some cases but not in others, and not just on Twitter. We happen to have in our files a selection of contrasting examples (also featuring the helpfully obvious verb be) from the letters of the esteemed F. Scott Fitzgerald:
I wish I were twenty-two again …
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, 27 Dec. 1925
So if I were elected King of Scotland tomorrow …
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, 18 July 1933
… my birthday is two-column front page news as if I were 80 instead of 40 … — F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, 23 Mar. 1937
In those examples, wish, if, and as if triggered the subjunctive. But Fitzgerald often follows the same words with the indicative:
I wish I was in print.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, 20 May 1940
… if I was Vassar, I wouldn’t take you …
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, 18 Apr. 1938
… as if the percentage of artists who made any kind of go of the lousy business was one to four.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, Spring 1939
Clearly there is a choice to be made here, and if Fitzgerald could use either form, so can (and do) others.
It's been several hundred years now that we've seen these examples of the indicative settling down in neighborhoods that were formerly exclusively subjunctive, with was competing with the older subjunctive were in wishes and in hypothetical and other unreal statements. We don't know what accounts for it, but the pull toward was is probably abetted by the near invisibility of the subjunctive; it doesn't have any distinctive forms, and often the forms it takes are identical to the forms the indicative takes in similar contexts.
The subjunctive doesn't, however, seem to be in a hurry to complete its supposed disappearing act from the living language. It's still easy to find in casual writing as well as in formal prose. And we see too that its forms even get pulled into service by conditional conjunctions like if, as if, and as though in cases where the mood isn't actually subjunctive:
They asked if I were apprehensive about visiting the fabulous cat, given her frequent refusal to grant visitors an audience.
The were says "subjunctive" but the if is not conditional; it's merely introducing the question about apprehension that may or may not factually exist. Such examples are considered to be hypercorrections by those who notice them, but it's likely few people do.