Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Subjunctives.

In modern English, the subjunctive mood of the verb appears primarily in six contexts: (1) conditions contrary to fact {if I were king} (where the indicative would be “am”); (2) suppositions {if I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project} (where the indicative would be “was”); (3) wishes {I wish that I were able to play piano} (where the indicative would be “was”); (4) demands and commands {I insisted that he go” (where the indicative would be “goes”); (5) suggestions and proposals {I suggest that she think about it a little longer} (where the indicative would be “thinks”); and (6) statements of necessity {it’s necessary that they be there} (where the indicative would be “are”). Although subjunctives are less common in English than they once were, they survive in those six contexts. While suppositions and wishes are the most common examples in conversation, the others are most common in writing. And they’re worth keeping. Subjunctives also persist in a few idiomatic phrases, such as “Long live the Queen,” “as it were,” “be that as it may,” and the literary “would (that) it were.” Another example is “be they” — e.g.: “In social situations, a conversation with Justice Brennan is likely as not to focus on the interests of those with whom he is speaking, be they judges, politicians and journalists, or waitresses, secretaries and gardeners.” Martin Tolchin, “Brennan Described as Self-Effacing, Sociable Irish Pol,” Dallas Morning News, 22 July 1990, at A12. They also endure in statements of fear or anxiety with the word “lest.” For information about our Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “‘If you please’ is an old subjunctive phrase, and ‘you’ is in the dative case — ‘if it be pleasing to you.'” James Bradstreet Greenough & George Lyman Kittredge, Words and Their Ways in English Speech 204 (1901).
Scroll to Top