Most Indo-European languages, in addition to verb
tenses (which demonstrate time), have verb
moods (which indicate a state of being or reality).
For instance, the most common moods in English include
the indicative, the imperative, the interrogative, and
Another, rarer mood is the subjunctive mood
(indicating a hypothetical state or a state contrary
to reality, such as a wish, a desire, or an imaginary
It is harder to explain the subjunctive. Five hundred years
ago, English had a highly developed subjunctive mood.
after the fourteenth century, speakers of English used
the subjunctive less frequently. Today, the mood has
vanished; modern speakers tend to use the conditional forms
of "could" and "would" to indicate statements contrary
to reality. The subjunctive only survives in a few, fossilized
examples, so they can be confusing. Here are the most
far the most common use of the subjunctive is the use
the subjunctive after "if" clauses that state or describe
a hypothetical situation.
I were a
butterfly, I would have wings."
Note that in the indicative,
we normally write, "I was." For instance, "When
I was a young boy, I liked to swim." However, to indicate
the subjunctive, we write "I were."
The subjunctive indicates a statement contrary to fact.
In the butterfly example above, I am not really a butterfly,
but I am describing a hypothetical situation that might
occur if I were one.
Indicative: "When I
was a butterfly in a former
life, I had wings."
In this sentence, the
author uses the indicative to indicate that she indeed
was a butterfly in the past,
and she is not just hypothetically speaking about a situation
contrary to her reality. Note that "when" usually takes
the indicative after it, and "if" frequently takes the
subjunctive also survives in a few idiomatic phrases
English as well. For instance, when someone sneezes, we
say, "God bless you," or "Bless you," rather than "God blesses
you." In this case, examine the subjunctive phrase and
contrast it with the indicative.
In the subjunctive, the phrase indicates a
hope or desire that God bless the sneezing individual. Obviously,
God isn't blessing that person at the moment, because the
person is sick, so the subjunctive indicates a wish contrary
to current reality in the speaker's viewpoint.
blesses you each day."
In the indicative, the author indicates that
God really does bless the individual. This speaker uses
the indicative to reflect what he sees as reality; i.e.,
God blesses people.
the subjunctive can also appear in restrictive clauses after
phrases like I wish that, I
hope that, I desire that,
or I suggest that, when the
speaker wishes to emphasize the tentative, contingent, suppositional,
or unreal nature of that wish, hope, or suggestion.
suggest that John
arrive on Tuesdays this month."
The day for the weekly arrival is a mere
suggestion, a hypothetical idea that John might or might
The statement does not necessarily mean he will arrive
at that time each week. Thus is is subjunctive, not indicative.
(He might or might
not bring her; it is only a possibility. The verb "might" in
the last part of the sentence strongly hints that the
situation is hypothetical;
thus we use subjunctive in the first clause.)
the subjunctive or the indicative can appear after phrases
or clauses including "might" and "may."
car will crash into his house if he builds it on
The sentence above
indicates a real possibility that he is building his
house on Interstate-40,
and thus a car very likely will crash into it. Thus, it
is indicative about reality.
car might crash into his house if he
were to build it
The sentence above using the subjunctive
suggests that it is unlikely he actually is building his
Interstate-40, but instead the speaker brings up the scenario
as a hypothetical situation.
one more situation creates the subjunctive mood. The word "let" can
be used to indicate the desire that some hypothetical
situation come to pass or grant permission for this hypothetical
situation to take place. This is called a "jussive subjunctive."
Indicate: That peasant
eats cake every day.
Subjunctive: Let that peasant
eat cake every day.