The Negative Canon: Subjunctive

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Old English had subjunctive inflections, in the way that some languages still do. The subjunctive forms were fewer than the indicative forms, with just one singular form and one plural form in each of the present and preterite tenses. (The verb for be was slightly different, because there were two forms, beon and wesan, from different roots. That, incidentally, is why we have present tense I am and past tense I was.) Modern English has no verb forms used for the subjunctive and nothing else. Instead, the subjunctive takes the form of the infinitive, except in the ‘were-subjunctive’, where were is used instead of was in the first and third person singular.

It’s convenient to consider the subjunctive under three headings.

Formulaic subjunctive. The formulaic subjunctive survives in a number of fossilized expressions such as ‘Heaven forbid!’ and Be that as it may. They are relatively few in number, and have no bearing on the use of the subjunctive elsewhere.

Mandative Subjunctive. The mandative subjunctive is used in a dependent clause that follows verbs such as those of recommending, ordering, advising or suggesting. It is also found after predicative adjectives such as essential, important, necessary and vital and conjunctions such as in order that and on condition that. In active constructions, except where the verb be occurs, the subjunctive is apparent only in the third person singular:

(1) We suggest she apologise.

In passive constructions and in other clauses with be, the plain form is used for all persons and numbers:

(2) The board recommended that I/you/he/she/we/they be dismissed immediately.

This use of the subjunctive seems to be favoured more in American English than in British English. To British ears it may sound very formal, and speakers of British English may prefer the indicative, or the modal verb should:

(3) We suggest she should apologise.


(4) The board recommended that he should be dismissed immediately.

Indeed, an alternative analysis of sentences such as (1) and (2) might see them as ellipted forms of (3) and (4).

Some will claim that the subjunctive is essential to differentiate, to take an example from Trask’s ‘Mind the Gaffe’, between:

(8) He insisted that they be locked up.


(9) He insisted that they were locked up.

This ignores the all-important role of context. These sentences would not occur in isolation. Even with the indicative as in (9), the preceding text would normally make it clear whether they were already locked up, or whether their being so was a desirable act. In British English at least, the modal should is again available, if necessary:

(10) He insisted that they should be locked up.

The plain form of be was once also used in an if-clause, as in, to take another example from Trask, if this be want you want rather than if this is want you want. That, as Trask says, sounds comical today.

The ‘Were-Subjunctive’. The third construction normally included under the heading ‘subjunctive’ is the use of ‘unreal’ were. It’s found in conditional sentences, and after verbs of wishing:

(5) If I were you, I wouldn’t go.

(6) He might do better, if he were to be nicer to other people.

(7) I wish I were richer than I am.

The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ don’t regard this as subjunctive at all. In ‘A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar’, they argue that:

. . . there are no grounds for analysing this ‘were’ as a past tense counterpart of the be that we find in constructions like ‘It’s vital that he be kind to her’. We don’t use ‘subjunctive’ as a term for an inflectional category, but for a syntactic construction employing the plain form of the verb.

They use instead the term ‘irrealis’ were, ‘indicating that it conveys degrees of remoteness from factuality’. They further comment:

This use of ‘were’ is highly exceptional: there is no other verb in the language where the modal remoteness meaning is expressed by a different inflectional form from the past time meaning. The irrealis form is unique to ‘be’, and limited to the 1st and 3rd person singular. It is an untidy relic of an earlier system, and some speakers usually, if not always, use preterite ‘was’ instead.

The use of the both the mandative subjunctive and the ‘were-subjunctive’ will seldom be ungrammatical, and some contexts may demand it, but that is not to say it is always necessary. Those who insist on it on all possible occasions take no account of context. There is little risk of ambiguity if the indicative is used in its place, and in Britain, at least, many contexts demand an informal style in which forms like the subjunctive are inappropriate. ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’, it is true, believes that:

. . .  there are still signs that it is not extinct [in speech] . . . And clearly the subjunctive is not gone away from writing, no matter how many commentators say that it is not as common now as it was a century ago.

That may be a specifically American view, contrasting with that of two eminent authorities on English on the British side of the Atlantic. In ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’, Bruce Mitchell wrote:

The subjunctive is now largely obsolete

and David Crystal wrote in ‘Rediscover Grammar’:

The subjunctive is used very little in modern English, being mainly restricted to formal or formulaic expression.

Pam Peters, an Australian, describes the preservation of the subjunctive in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ as being one of the shibboleths that are :

. . . endorsed without any critical thought about their basis in contemporary English. More damagingly, they are made the touchstones of ‘correct’ English, to which everyone must adhere or be damned.

That’s why the subjunctive deserves a place in the Negative Canon. As Arthur Hugh Clough wrote of the sixth commandment, so of the subjunctive:

Thou shalt not kill, nor strive
Officiously to keep alive.


Filed under The Negative Canon

18 responses to “The Negative Canon: Subjunctive

  1. dw

    Some will claim that the subjunctive is essential to differentiate, to take an example from Trask’s ‘Mind the Gaffe’, between:

    (8) He insisted that they be locked up.


    (9) He insisted that they were locked up.

    This ignores the all-important role of context. These sentences would not occur in isolation. Even with the indicative as in (9), the preceding text would normally make it clear whether they were already locked up, or whether their being so was a desirable act.

    I’m not sure to what extent this is actually true. A quick Google search of UK news sources found a couple of cases where the true meaning was ambiguous, even after reading the full story and thinking about the question for a few seconds:

    From the Daily Mail:

    Soca insisted that the list was classified as ‘confidential’ before handing it over to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee this week.

    From the <a href="Independent

    Some 55 per cent of Liberal Democrat members want Nick Clegg to strike a deal with Labour at the next election, against 18 per cent in favour of continuing a pact with the Tories. Mr Clegg has insisted that the party is “equidistant” between the two.

    Now this is only two cases, compared to several that I found where the meaning was not ambiguous. (When spokespersons “insist” to the media, as they often do, then they are always making claims about things as they are, not as they should be). But even bedrock grammatical distinctions in English, such as the present/past tense distinction, could be omitted most of the time, with the meaning being reconstructible from the context.


    • Thank you. They’re good examples and I appreciate your taking the time to find them.

      In the first case, we are told in the following paragraph that Keith Vaz ‘has asked . . . why the list is being censored’. That makes it clear to me that Soca were going to classify it as confidential, rather than that they were confirming that it had already been classified before it had been handed over at some earlier date. In any case, how would we tell the difference if there was more than one list involved? If we read ‘Soca insisted that the lists were classified as “confidential”’, then we have no alternative but to base our interpretation on the context. If we don’t make the distinction in the plural, why do we need to do so in the singular?

      In the second case, there’s no doubt in my mind that Nick Clegg was claiming that his party certainly was half way between the two others, and not that it should be in the future. Context means not only what might appear in the article, but what might reasonably be expected of the assumed readers and listeners. The case against the indicative, as I understand it, is that there is a danger that the sentence ‘Mr Clegg insists his party is “equidistant” between the Tories and Labour’ could be read as meaning that he thought it should be rather than that it is. If that is so, why would there not be a similar danger in a sentence in which the verb is plural, as in, for example, ‘Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron insist that their parties are united on the policy.’

      It may be true that past and present tense distinctions could be removed, but no one does normally remove them. By contrast, both indicative and subjunctive forms are found in the kind of sentence we’ve been discussing, which suggests that the former has as much validity as the latter.

      I’m not saying that everyone should stop using the subjunctive tomorrow. What I do suggest is it is not necessary in many circumstances where it is found, and that those who choose the indicative are not generally at fault, and, in informal contexts, may be making the right choice.


      • I (BrE) don’t really see any ambiguity even in these two examples. If No 1 were/was about past time, I would have expected the writer to use past perfect:

        ‘Soca insisted that the list had been classified as ‘confidential’ before handing it over to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee this week. ‘

        And if No 2 was/were about what the party should be, rather than actually is, Clegg would have used “should”, as Barrie explained:

        “Mr Clegg has insisted that the party should be “equidistant” between the two.”

        I agree that the use of ‘was’ or ‘were’ is largely a matter of formality, in BrE at least, with ‘was’ becoming increasingly popular, as I believe, everyday language gets less formal. In the debates before the last election, all three candidates for prime minister, hardly uneducated men, were apparently heard to say “If I was prime minister, I would …”.

        In TEFL, we talk about the “Unreal past” for hypothetical present time conditionals, with “were” being seen as a sort of exception, which we point out as quite formal. What I find interesting though, is that if we invert, ‘were’ is mandatory – We cannot say, for example, – ‘Was he prime minister, he would …’

        I’ve written about it from a TEFL point of view, but rather for native speakers, in my usual long-winded way, with various references and explanations here.


        • Another comprehensive post, Will, if I may say so. It’s reassuring to see so much agreement on the matter in TEFL material. I will have to explore ‘Pain in the English’. I liked the answers you gave there. You’ve also made me aware that I omitted to mention that subjunctive ‘be’ can be used in sentences like ‘He asks that we be ready to leave at eight’ and I have edited my post accordingly. As you will know from my post, Huddleston and Pullum don’t recognize present and past subjunctive.

          A riposte to those curious caddish sentences can be given by making them plural:

          ‘If we were hopeless cads, we apologize.’
          ‘If we were hopeless cads, we would never apologize.’

          There’s no problem in using the same form of ‘be’ in the plural, so why should there be in the singular?

          ‘Was’ instead of ‘were’ at the beginning of a sentence certainly sounds strange, but MWDEU reports that Jespersen found a few examples, including this one from a letter written by Charles Lamb in 1809:

          ‘Was I Diogenes, I would not move out of a kilderkin into a hogshead.’

          Do you happen to know where Bad Linguistics went, if anywhere, after Posterous was closed?


  2. Sorry, but I don’t know what happened to Bad Linguistics. I don’t want to prejudge, but I’m not sure that PITE would really be up your street. It’s not exactly on the same level as Stack Exchange. On the other hand, it’s a lot more relaxed.


    • Thanks for the warning. I was once quite active on Stack Exchange, but I’m now spending some time on the LinkedIn site Grammar Geeks instead. You might like to give it a try.

      Pity about Bad Linguistics. I loved her hatchet jobs on Melvyn Bragg and Stephen Fry.


  3. When native speakers are discussing whether a distinction is necessary to make speech or writing unambiguous, that distinction is pretty near dead. For me (and I bet for Trask and for most Standard English speakers in North America), the distinction in the verb between (a) He insisted that they were locked up and (b) He insisted that they be locked up is as cogent and as automatic as that between (c)He insists that they were locked up and (d) They insist that they were locked up. That is, we may prefer to say or write (e) He insisted that they should be locked up instead of (b), but won’t use (a) where the meaning calls for (b) or (e). Nobody thinks to say (except ESL speakers!) that (f) *He insist that they were locked up would be fine, that there is no real need for third person singular -s, that it would be unambiguous to leave it out, because it is still a living part of the language. But this is not true, even in North America, of conditional were.


    • I think most speakers of British English, too, would understand the difference between (a) and (b), but, when it comes to speaking or writing, might prefer (e), or even (a), to (b), when the locking-up was yet to occur. For us (well, for me), (b) has something of the school-room about it, and its use is likely to be confined in Britsh English to more formal contexts.


  4. rena

    Hello, why is “be” used in these sentences?

    – To you be your way and to me mine.
    – Peace be on you.
    – God be praised.
    – Blessed be the Lord.

    I need your help, please.


    • These are examples of the formulaic subjunctive, which I mention in paragraph 3 of my post. They use the base form of the verb instead of the inflected indicative form. In your examples, the verb is ‘be’, but other verbs are possible in this kind of construction, such as ‘Heaven forbid’ and ‘Come what may’.


  5. rena

    Barrie, I still don’t understant. Does the writer drop “may” in those sentences? As I have known, the sunjunctive expresses a desire, wish, hope. By saying “to you be your way and to me mine”, what is the desire of the speaker?

    I can include “may”, but it wiĺl be different.

    May to you be your way and to me mine/may your way be to you and to me mine.
    – May God be praised.
    – May praise be to God and so on.

    Could you explain to me once more?

    I sometimes also see the writer using the verb “is” (the indicative) like the following.

    – Blessed is whosever in the fire.
    – Blessed is the Lord.
    – Happy is he.
    – Glorious is God.

    How is this?


    • It is best to regard these well-known expressions as fossilized forms of English which preserve a construction that is no longer in widespread use. That is why they are called ‘formulaic’: they are used only in certain contexts, and allow no variation.


      • rena

        I see. Anyway, can I change “be” with “is” there?

        To you is your way and to me mine.
        Praise is to God.

        Also, what’s the difference between “Blessed be the Lord” and “Blessed is the Lord?

        We see, these sentences can be inverted.

        – Hallowed be your name = Your name be hallowed.
        – Thanks be to God = God be thanked.

        But, I’m sure the word “may” is disappearing here.

        What do you think?


        • The versions you propose are grammatical, but their meaning could only be properly understood in context.

          I am grateful for your comments, but I’m afraid this is not the place for an extended English lesson. If you are in any doubt about the use of verbs in these expressions, you may like to consult a qualified English teacher or one of the books I list under the Language Resources tab.


  6. dwishiren

    Why do grammatical terms such as “infinitive, present tense, definite article”, etc use “a”? I think there is only one of these things, and they should take “the”.

    As the present perfect is a present tense.
    If the noun is unique, use a definite article.
    You can use an infinitive.


    • There’s no absolute rule about whether any particular noun will take a definite or indefinite article. The choice depends on the context. But your question doesn’t seem to be about the subjunctive, which is the topic of this post.


  7. Thank you so much, Barrie. Now I’ve understood that this aspect is discussing for particular reasons. From now then, in speech I should avoid subjunctives as often as possible. This is a very good lecture for me .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s