Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Subjunctive: I Wish it Were That Easy

Thanks to Jason C. for e-mailing this screen shot from so we can have a discussion about the dreaded, little understood verb form known as the subjunctive. (Cue dark clouds and thunder clap.)

Where does Armstrong go wrong? His wishful, hypothetical statement requires a subjunctive verb.

Never heard of the subjunctive? Many people don't know what the subjunctive is, let alone how to use it. And there's no denying that it can sound pretentious, especially when spoken. But (a) it can't be avoided and (b) it will surely end up on a test one day. So buck up and take a few minutes to learn it.

Quick rules:
  • Use the subjunctive when conveying a wish or emphatic direction that's hypothetical, not given.
  • In most cases, the subjunctive is the same as the bare infitinitive.
  • The subjunctive is the same for every person/thing (I/you/he/she/it/we/they). 

Correction: Armstrong: I wish I were younger, faster.

The back story: In English, we have three verb moods:
  • The indicative, for simple statements and questions: He sits. He circles the correct answer.
  • The imperative, for commands and directions: Sit down. Circle the correct answer.
  • The subjunctive, for events that we hope or require to happen: I insist that he sit. It's necessary that he circle the correct answer.

Instead of wrapping your head around the gnarly concept of hypothetical wishfulness, you will probably find it easier to simply familiarize yourself with the most common structures using verbs and expressions that require the subjunctive:

  • verbs that show wishfulness or desired action: wish, command, demand, insist, request, ask, recommend, propose, suggest
    I/he/she/we/they ________ that I/he/she/we/they _________.
    He asks that we are there on time.
    Correct: He asks that we be there on time.
  • certain "if" expressions that show desire: If only, as if
    ..... as if I/he/she/we/they __________ .
    She talked about me as if I was invisible.
    Correct: She talked about me as if I were invisible.
  • verb expressions that show emphasis or importance: "It is" + necessary, desirable, essential, important, vital, crucial
    It is ___________ that I/he/she/we/they ___________.
    Incorrect: It is necessary that you are packed and ready to go.
    Correct: It is necessary that you be packed and ready to go.

How to find the subjunctive:
  • In every case but one, the subjunctive verb is the same as the bare infinitive. To get the bare infinitive, take the infinitive (to go, to do, to be, to work, etc.) and drop the "to." So if the infinitive is "to be," the subjunctive verb is simply "be." 
  • This works for every person (I/you/he/she/it/we/they), and in both the past and present tenses.
  • The exception: The subjunctive for the past tense of "be" is "were."
    Incorrect: Her teacher insisted that she was in the auditorium by 7:30am.
    Correct: Her teacher insisted that she were in the auditorium by 7:30am.

More examples:
  • If only she were here, we would be able to sit down and eat.
  • We should behave as if he were watching our every move. 
  • It's as if I were floating on a cloud.
  • It's not as if she were unattractive.
  • If I were you, I'd stop wasting time. If I were rich, I'd buy you a car.
  • He insisted that you be here.  
  • He required that we be on time. The boss mandated that we be at our desks by 9am. 
  • He recommends that she wait until 5pm.
  • I wish he were able to get tickets to the show.
  • It is absolutely vital that he be on that bus at noon.


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