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VERBS > Active Voice > Passive Voice > Conjugation > Defective Strong Verbs > Mood > Imperative Mood > Indicative Mood > Subjunctive Mood > BE (usage) > CHOOSE (usage) > Person/Number (usage) > SHALL/WILL (usage) > Strong Verbs > Tense > Transitive > Troublesome Verbs > Weak Verbs



217. The subjunctive mood is that form or use of the verb which expresses action or being, not as a fact, but as merely conceived of in the mind.

Meaning of the word.

218. Subjunctive means subjoined, or joined as dependent or subordinate to something else.

This meaning is misleading.

If its original meaning be closely adhered to, we must expect every dependent clause to have its verb in the subjunctive mood, and every clause not dependent to have its verb in some other mood.

But this is not the case. In the quotation from Hamilton (Sec. 215, 2) several subjoined clauses introduced by if have the indicative mood, and also independent clauses are often found having the verb in the subjunctive mood.


Three cautions will be laid down which must be observed by a student who wishes to understand and use the English subjunctive:—

(1) You cannot tell it always by the form of the word. The main difference is, that the subjunctive has no -s as the ending of the present tense, third person singular; as, "If he come."

(2) The fact that its clause is dependent or is introduced by certain words will not be a safe rule to guide you.

(3) The meaning of the verb itself must be keenly studied.

Subjunctive in Independent Clauses.

I. Expressing a Wish.

219. The following are examples of this use:—

Heaven rest her soul!—Moore.

God grant you find one face there You loved when all was young.—Kingsley.

Now tremble dimples on your cheek, Sweet be your lips to taste and speak.—Beddoes.

Long die thy happy days before thy death.—Shakespeare.

II. A Contingent Declaration or Question.

220. This really amounts to the conclusion, or principal clause, in a sentence, of which the condition is omitted.

Our chosen specimen of the hero as literary man [if we were to choose one] would be this Goethe.—Carlyle.

I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear.

Most excellent stranger, as you come to the lakes simply to see their loveliness, might it not be as well to ask after the most beautiful road, rather than the shortest?—De Quincey.

Subjunctive in Dependent Clauses.

I. Condition or Supposition.

221. The most common way of representing the action or being as merely thought of, is by putting it into the form of a supposition or condition; as,—

Now, if the fire of electricity and that of lightning be the same, this pasteboard and these scales may represent electrified clouds.—Franklin.

Here no assertion is made that the two things are the same; but, if the reader merely conceives them for the moment to be the same, the writer can make the statement following. Again,—

If it be Sunday [supposing it to be Sunday], the peasants sit on the church steps and con their psalm books.—Longfellow.


222. There are three kinds of conditional sentences:—

Real or true.

(1) Those in which an assumed or admitted fact is placed before the mind in the form of a condition (see Sec. 215, 2); for example,—

If they were unacquainted with the works of philosophers and poets, they were deeply read in the oracles of God. If their names were not found in the registers of heralds, they were recorded in the Book of Life.—Macaulay.

Ideal,—may or may not be true.

(2) Those in which the condition depends on something uncertain, and may or may not be regarded true, or be fulfilled; as,—

If, in our case, the representative system ultimately fail, popular government must be pronounced impossible.—D. Webster.

If this be the glory of Julius, the first great founder of the Empire, so it is also the glory of Charlemagne, the second founder.—Bryce.

If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need of these ethics. —Emerson.

Unreal—cannot be true.

(3) Suppositions contrary to fact, which cannot be true, or conditions that cannot be fulfilled, but are presented only in order to suggest what might be or might have been true; thus,—

If these things were true, society could not hold together. —Lowell.

Did not my writings produce me some solid pudding, the great deficiency of praise would have quite discouraged me.—Franklin.

Had he for once cast all such feelings aside, and striven energetically to save Ney, it would have cast such an enhancing light over all his glories, that we cannot but regret its absence.—Bayne.

NOTE.—Conditional sentences are usually introduced by if, though, except, unless, etc.; but when the verb precedes the subject, the conjunction is often omitted: for example, "Were I bidden to say how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed," etc.


In the following conditional clauses, tell whether each verb is indicative or subjunctive, and what kind of condition:—

1. The voice, if he speak to you, is of similar physiognomy, clear, melodious, and sonorous.—Carlyle.

2. Were you so distinguished from your neighbors, would you, do you think, be any the happier?—Thackeray.

3. Epaminondas, if he was the man I take him for, would have sat still with joy and peace, if his lot had been mine.—Emerson.

4. If a damsel had the least smattering of literature, she was regarded as a prodigy.—Macaulay.

5. I told him, although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other,... yet I would take such caution that he should have the honor entire.—Swift.

6. If he had reason to dislike him, he had better not have written, since he [Byron] was dead.—N. P. Willis.

7. If it were prostrated to the ground by a profane hand, what native of the city would not mourn over its fall?—Gayarre.

8. But in no case could it be justified, except it be for a failure of the association or union to effect the object for which it was created.—Calhoun.

II. Subjunctive of Purpose.

223. The subjunctive, especially be, may, might, and should, is used to express purpose, the clause being introduced by that or lest; as,—

It was necessary, he supposed, to drink strong beer, that he might be strong to labor.—Franklin.

I have been the more particular...that you may compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there.—Id.

He [Roderick] with sudden impulse that way rode, To tell of what had passed, lest in the strife They should engage with Julian's men.—Southey.

III. Subjunctive of Result.

224. The subjunctive may represent the result toward which an action tends:—

So many thoughts move to and fro,
That vain it were her eyes to close.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan...
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night.

IV. In Temporal Clauses.

225. The English subjunctive, like the Latin, is sometimes used in a clause to express the time when an action is to take place.

Let it rise, till it meet the sun in his coming.—D. Webster.

Rise up, before it be too late!—Hawthorne.

But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside.

V. In Indirect Questions.

226. The subjunctive is often found in indirect questions, the answer being regarded as doubtful.

Ask the great man if there be none greater.—Emerson

What the best arrangement were, none of us could say.—Carlyle.

Whether it were morning or whether it were afternoon, in her confusion she had not distinctly known.—De Quincey.

VI. Expressing a Wish.

227. After a verb of wishing, the subjunctive is regularly used in the dependent clause.

The transmigiation of souls is no fable. I would it were! —Emerson.

Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art!—Keats.

I've wished that little isle had wings,
And we, within its fairy bowers,
Were wafted off to seas unknown.

VII. In a Noun Clause.


228. The noun clause, in its various uses as subject, object, in apposition, etc., often contains a subjunctive.

The essence of originality is not that it be new.—Carlyle

Apposition or logical subject.

To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of those October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air.—Thoreau.


The first merit, that which admits neither substitute nor equivalent, is, that everything be in its place.—Coleridge.


As sure as Heaven shall rescue me, I have no thought what men they be.—Coleridge.

Some might lament that I were cold.—Shelley.

After verbs of commanding.

This subjunctive is very frequent after verbs of commanding.

See that there be no traitors in your camp.—Tennyson.

Come, tell me all that thou hast seen,
And look thou tell me true.

See that thy scepter be heavy on his head.—De Quincey.

VIII. Concessive Clauses.

229. The concession may be expressed—

(1) In the nature of the verb; for example,—

Be the matter how it may, Gabriel Grub was afflicted with rheumatism to the end of his days.—Dickens.

Be the appeal made to the understanding or the heart, the sentence is the same—that rejects it.—Brougham

(2) By an indefinite relative word, which may be

(a) Pronoun.

Whatever betide, we'll turn aside,
And see the Braes of Yarrow.

(b) Adjective.

That hunger of applause, of cash, or whatsoever victual it may be, is the ultimate fact of man's life.—Carlyle.

(c) Adverb.

Wherever he dream under mountain or stream,
The spirit he loves remains.

Prevalence of the Subjunctive Mood.

230. As shown by the wide range of literature from which these examples are selected, the subjunctive is very much used in literary English, especially by those who are artistic and exact in the expression of their thought.

At the present day, however, the subjunctive is becoming less and less used. Very many of the sentences illustrating the use of the subjunctive mood could be replaced by numerous others using the indicative to express the same thoughts.

The three uses of the subjunctive now most frequent are, to express a wish, a concession, and condition contrary to fact.

In spoken English, the subjunctive were is much used in a wish or a condition contrary to fact, but hardly any other subjunctive forms are.

It must be remembered, though, that many of the verbs in the subjunctive have the same form as the indicative. Especially is this true of unreal conditions in past time; for example,—

Were we of open sense as the Greeks were, we had found [should have found] a poem here.—Carlyle.

VERBS > Active Voice > Passive Voice > Conjugation > Defective Strong Verbs > Mood > Imperative Mood > Indicative Mood > Subjunctive Mood > BE (usage) > CHOOSE (usage) > Person/Number (usage) > SHALL/WILL (usage) > Strong Verbs > Tense > Transitive > Troublesome Verbs > Weak Verbs