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Author Topic: When are subjunctive sentences called for and how are they constructed?  (Read 3349 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: October 06, 2013, 06:30:43 PM »

Question posted in my Personal Messages box Nesaga, new Forum member (October 6, 2013):

Please explain the rules on the proper use of “was” or “were” in “If I (were, was)…” sentences, as in “If I were you, I will...” or “If I was there, I would...”

It has been such a long time that I can’t even recall the term on this subject.

Thank you very much.

My reply to Nesaga:

The verb “be” is in the so-called subjunctive mood when it consistently takes the plural past-tense form “were” rather than “was” or “is” in sentences like “If I were you, I would have accepted that job offer,” “If Marian were taller, she’d qualify for that beauty contest,” and “I wish Edwin were more discreet in his personal affairs.”

Recall now that mood is that aspect of the verb that expresses the state of mind or attitude of the speaker toward what he or she is saying. There are three such moods in English: the indicative mood and the imperative mood, both of which deal with actions or states in factual or real-world situations; and the subjunctive mood, which deals with actions or states only as possible, contingent, or conditional outcomes of a want, wish, preference, or uncertainty expressed by the speaker.

Let’s do a quick review of all three of these moods to put our discussions in full context.

The indicative mood. This mood conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Statements in the indicative mood seek to give the impression that the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner. Verbs in this mood take their normal inflections in all the tenses and obey the subject-verb agreement rule at all times.

Here are examples of indicative sentences: “The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,100 islands” (stating an objective fact); “Several senators implicated in the pork-barrel scam have outrageously proclaimed ignorance despite the preponderance of the evidence against them” (stating an opinion); and “Who then plundered all those millions from the government coffers?” (posing a question).

The imperative mood. This mood denotes the attitude of a speaker who (1) demands or orders a particular action, (2) makes a request or suggestion, (3) gives advice, or (4) states a prohibition. This mood uses the base form of the operative verb (the verb’s infinitive form without the “to”), and is most often used in second-person, present-tense sentences that use an elliptical subject or the unstated second-person pronoun “you.

Here are examples of imperative statements; “Abolish the pork barrel unconditionally!” (demanding a particular action); “Please keep quiet” (making a request or suggestion); “Take this pill for a good night’s sleep” (giving advice); and “Don’t pick the flowers” (stating a prohibition).

The subjunctive mood. This mood, which only has present-tense and past-tense forms, performs the following tasks: (1) indicate a possibility (2) express a desire or wishful attitude, (3) express insistence on a particular action, (4) express doubt about a certain outcome, (5) describe an unreal situation or an idea contrary to fact, or (6) express a request or suggestion. When used with the auxiliary verbs “could,” “would,” and “should,” the subjunctive can convey even more intricate and sophisticated shades of possibility and conditionality.

Now we are ready to take up the specific rules for constructing sentences in the subjunctive mood:

(1) When indicating a supposition or possibility. Regardless of whether the doer of the action is singular or plural, verbs consistently take the subjunctive plural past tense in “if”-clauses that indicate a supposition or possibility: “If I were to join you in Tokyo, I’d have to file a leave from my job.” “You’d all loss your jobs if Rowena were to implicate you in that funds anomaly.”

(2) When expressing a desire or wishful attitude. Verbs consistently take the subjunctive plural past tense in “that”-clauses that follow main clauses expressing a wish: “I wish (that) she were more reliable.” “I wish (that) I were the team leader.” “How I wish (that) you were home now!” The wish or desired outcome in such constructions is neither a present reality nor a future certainty.

(3) When expressing insistence on a particular action. Regardless of whether the doer of the action is singular or plural, verbs consistently take the subjunctive plural present tense in “that”-clauses that insist that a particular action be taken: “I insist that everyone vacate the room right now.” “I demand that Francis stop that transaction at once.”

(4) When describing the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact. The subjunctive can be used to denote a hypothetical state or outcome given a certain condition that is unreal or contrary to fact. Such conditions will often be indicated by the word “if” or “wish”: “If the moon were not there, there wouldn’t be tides on Earth.” Without “if,” such constructions can sometimes take an inverted syntax: “Were the moon not there, there wouldn’t be tides on Earth.”

One notable exception that doesn’t call for subjunctive usage is when verbs like “wonder” or “ask” are used to express indirect questions. Even if the act or state described is evidently contrary to fact, the indirect question should be constructed in the indicative mood: “We wondered if the testimony she gave was [not “were”] truthful in all respects.” “I was surprised that my friend in Norway asked me if the Philippines was [not “were”] part of the Asian mainland.”

(5) When expressing doubt about certain appearances or raise a question about an outcome. Statements that cast doubt on observed behavior or raise a question about a presumed outcome often take the subjunctive form: “She behaved as if she were the only cultured person in class.”

I hope that this has adequately clarified the subjunctive usage in English for you.

« Last Edit: March 11, 2016, 04:35:09 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Joe Carillo
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« Reply #1 on: October 12, 2013, 08:19:44 PM »

Follow-up question by nesaga posted in my Personal Messages box (October 12, 2013):

Thank you for the response.

And then, the governor of New Jersey, USA just said, “If I was in the senate, I’d kill myself.” Based on your explanations on subjunctive mood, the sentence is wrong. I hear frequently from learned people.

Please explain further.

My reply to Nesaga:

The sentence you presented, “If I was in the senate, I’d kill myself,” is grammatically correct but it’s not in the subjunctive mood. It is a Type 2 conditional sentence, which conveys the idea that the action in the main clause could take place only if the very unlikely condition stated in the subordinate “if”-clause is fulfilled. In such conditional sentences, the condition in the “if”-clause is expressed in the simple past tense “was” while the consequence in the main clause is expressed in the form “would + bare infinitive of the verb” (a bare infinitive being the verb’s infinitive without the “to”).

So that’s the case in the Type 2 conditional sentence “If I was in the senate, I’d kill myself.” (Just keep in mind that “I’d kill myself is a contraction of “I would kill myself.) Here, the outcome “I’d kill myself” in the main clause is improbable since it’s very unlikely—although not an outright impossibility—for the condition “if I was in the senate” to be fulfilled. This is because the speaker obviously isn’t in the senate at the time of speaking; however, it’s still conceivable even if highly improbable for him or her—perhaps at the moment watching the senate proceedings on TV—to rush to the senate right after making that declaration, get there with time to spare, and, well, commit suicide upon entering the session hall.

But a corollary question that I know will come to mind at this point is this: Would it be possible for that sentence to be constructed in the subjunctive mood?

Yes, it could take the subjunctive form “If I were in the senate, I would have killed myself,” but the situation and the sense would be different. This time the sentence is in the subjunctive mood, describing the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact. The subjunctive condition “if I were in the senate” is unreal or contrary to fact, and the outcome “I would have killed myself”—with the verb in the form “would + past participle of the verb”—is just hypothetical. In short, both the condition and the outcome are just conjectures that could no longer possibly happen; it’s not at all possible for the speaker to be in the senate and he or she could not possibly commit suicide there.

FURTHER READING ON CONDITIONAL SENTENCES:
Do better than a calculated guess in handling conditional sentences
« Last Edit: October 12, 2013, 10:58:58 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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