A good verb deserves the right mood

I could talk about the mood of verbs until someone felt the imperative to beat me over the head with a dictionary.

I don’t need anything quite so indicative to get the message, though.

So let’s just talk about the subjunctive.

One of the most common uses of the subjunctive is to express something contrary to fact: a wish, for example, or speculation, as in the (grammatically incorrect) New York Times headline above. That headline should have said were, not was.

If Bill Clinton Were President

Clinton was president in the 1990s, but he isn’t anymore. So speculating about Clinton today forces us into the subjunctive. New York Times editors apparently recognized their lapse into subjunctivitis after the Week in Review section was printed. They changed the headline online.

More than a century ago, H.W. Fowler declared most uses of the subjunctive “perishing so rapidly that an experienced word-actuary puts their expectation of life at one generation.” Today, the Oxford American Dictionary points out, the subjunctive isn’t all that common in English, at least compared with other languages.

It lists some common expressions in which the subjunctive still shows up, though:

Be that as it may …

Far be it from me …

As it were …

Come what may …

Then there’s that British favorite: Long live the Queen!

That sentence expresses a wish, another common use of the subjunctive. Others include expressions of a request or a recommendation.

If you remember only one thing about the subjunctive, though, make it this: When you express something contrary to fact, the form of to be verbs shifts:

If I were (not was) you, I’d read more about the subjunctive.

If my grandmother were (not was) alive, she would agree with me.

I am not you and never will be you. (Aren’t you glad about that?) My grandmother died 15 years ago.

Don’t get carried away, though. If you don’t know whether something is contrary to fact, don’t shift into the subjunctive:

If she is declared the winner, she will celebrate. (We don’t know what will happen.)

If you feel the imperative to read more about the subjunctive, give Malcolm Gibson’s site a try. It might help your mood.

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