In English, the subjunctive forms are easy to use. However, the subjunctive structure of the verb tense can cause a little bit of confusion.
Verbs in the present subjunctive sentences take a distinct form that is similar to the imperative mood. So we need to be careful in choosing grammar structures to reflect the sense of a phrase accurately.
Unlike the subjunctive moods in Spanish and French, we use the subjunctive mood in English far less frequently. It is also used a little less often in American English than in British English because of its sense of implied formality.
To get a basic understanding of the subjunctive mood and how to use it, we need to look at the meaning and the grammatical forms in the present subjunctive and past subjunctive.
What is the meaning of the subjunctive?
We use it most often when formal writing and speaking. More so in business English when there is a need to express desires, urgency, importance or necessity.
However, there are times when we use it in everyday language too.
It usually follows verbs like to recommend, to insist or to suggest, and other words that express these ideas, such as vital, necessary, important or essential. In other words, the subjunctive tense refers to something that is quite important.
You will notice also, we use that after these verbs and expressions.
Here are some verbs that we commonly follow with the subjunctive.
to demand (that)
to recommend (that)
to suggest (that)
to advise (that)
to ask (that)
to command (that)
to urge (that)
to desire (that)
to insist (that)
to request (that)
to propose (that)
We also use it after certain expressions.
It is imperative (that)
It is best (that)
It is vital (that)
It is crucial (that)
It is a good idea (that)
It is a bad idea (that)
It is essential (that)
It is desirable (that)
It is important (that)
It is recommended (that)
It is urgent (that)
We also use it to express advice, to wish for something, or to talk about something that is contrary to fact or hypothetical and imaginary situations.
With these senses, it is why we refer to it as a mood rather than a tense because it is expressing a condition.
We also use the subjunctive in very fixed expressions, a set phrase or common sayings.
I will give examples of all of these later in this article.
What is the grammatical structure of the subjunctive?
We use the subjunctive in the present and past tense.
The present subjunctive uses the bare infinitive verb. That means it is a verb without to, which is similar to the imperative.
If we take a simple verb such as to look, the present tense form is as follows.
As you can see, the third person singular pronouns take the verb without an ‘s’. However, for the first, second and third person plural, it is the same verb form as the present simple.
The rule is that we use the second person plural verb form, which is you look.
When we use the verb to be in the present, the subjunctive form is always be. It is the same as the imperative form.
For the past, we only use the verb to be. But again, we use the second person plural.
Examples of the present subjunctive verb forms
We recommend that all staff acknowledge receipt of this letter.
He insisted that we go with her.
It is vital that children remain on the school grounds until their parents collect them.
They claimed it was essential that the alarm system be checked.
In the negative form, the subjunctive does not take the auxiliary do:
They insisted that we not stay any longer.
It is vital that children not leave the school grounds until their parents collect them.
We can also use should to express a similar mood. In this case, advice.
This a more commonly used structure in modern English.
However, notice that the forms of the verbs do not change because the bare infinitive is always used after a modal verb such as should or in conditional sentences.
We insist that all staff should acknowledge receipt of this letter.
They insisted that we should go with them.
It is vital that children should remain on the school grounds until their parents collect them.
Examples of the past subjunctive
The most common use is when a speaker feels the need to talk about a hypothetical situation or to offer advice.
Although we don’t use the subjunctive as often in speaking, the expression “if I were you” is used all the time.
If I were you, I would see a doctor.
He wishes he were here with you.
If he were to pass his exam, he would have good employment prospects.
It was as if Susan were disturbed by something strange.
He winced in pain as though he were being bitten by something.
Were he to get the job, he could buy a new car.
Examples of fixed subjunctive expressions
Be that as it may, you are still required to attend.
If they insist on that attitude, then so be it.
God save the Queen.
God bless you.
Let it be.
Come what may.
The confusion in identifying and using the subjunctive comes from the fact that the third person singular forms are easy to spot.
But in the first, second and third person plural forms, it is not so evident, unless a phrase uses the verb to be.
It is important that you look your best for your job interview.
It is important that he look his best for his job interview.
It is important that you be on time for your job interview.
It is important that they be on time for their job interview.
Also, remember that the negative subjunctive never uses don’t or doesn’t. The negative is always, not.
It is essential that you not look badly dressed for your job interview.
It is essential that he not look badly dressed for your job interview.
It is essential that you not be late for your job interview.
It is essential that he not be late for his job interview.
The past use of the subjunctive is much easier because it is always, were.
Although you may not use this form very often in speaking, it is important to know how to recognise English verbs in the subjunctive mood when you read.
It will give you a better understanding of what the phrase is implying and what mood it is inferring.
If you are a writer, you will rarely use the form. But if you do, you now know how you can use the subjunctive correctly.