Subjunctive

Introduction

The English subjunctive is occasionally used in sophisticated or literary language, especially in American English.

Construction

In the subjunctive, the verb is always in its basic form. This means that in the third person singular, no s is added, and the verb be is not conjugated.

Example:
I recommend that she be employed.

For the volitional subjunctive we use the past form. For all verbs except be, this form is identical to the past form of the indicative. The past form of be in the subjunctive is were.

Example:
He spoke English – I wish he spoke English.
I was there – I wish I were there.

Usage

Formulaic Subjunctive

The formulaic subjunctive is used in certain idiomatic phrases.

Example:
God save the Queen!
Long live the King!
Thy will be done.
Be that as it may.

Mandative Subjunctive

We use the mandative subjunctive that something must be done. Here we use the subjunctive in that-sentences after certain verbs (e.g. demand, insist, recommend, suggest) or adjectives (e.g. essential, important, vital).

Example:
People demand that the troops be withdrawn.
It is important that everyone register.

Since these sentences sound very formal, we often prefer to use the indicative form with a helping verb instead of the subjunctive.

Example:
People demand that the troops should be withdrawn.

If the demand is clear even without a helping verb, then the verb can simply be used in its indicative form.

Example:
People demand that the troops are withdrawn.
It is important that everyone registers.

In the following example, however, the meaning changes depending on whether we use the subjunctive or the indicative:

subjunctive:
She insisted that he be present.

Demanding that someone must be there in the present or future

indicative:
She insisted that he was present.

Claiming/insisting that someone was there in the past

To Note

For the mandative subjunctive we always use the infinitive form of the verb, even when we’re talking about a situation in the past. The negation is constructed without the helping verb do.

Example:
She insisted that he not be present.

Volitional Subjunctive

The volitional subjunctive is used for irreal wishes and hopes, and is expressed using the past form of the subjunctive. For all verbs except be, this is identical to the normal past form of the verb (= indicative).

Example:
I wish I had a million dollars.

In the subjunctive, the past form of the verb be is were.

Example:
I wish I were a millionaire.

You probably remember this form from the if-clauses (type II).

Example:
If I were you, …

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