Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 48: Subjunctivitis

This week, on Grammar Grater, we're going explore the confusion surrounding the use of the subjunctive mood in English. A listener from Wisconsin wrote to us recently and asked:
I know "If I were you ..." is right — but why shouldn't it be "If I was you..."? Why use the plural "were" with the singular "I"?
This is a great question with an interesting answer. The listener points out that "were" is plural, and that's correct — if we were talking about regular second or third-person plural past tense, but we're not. In the case of "If I were you," the verb "to be" is actually in the subjunctive mood.

Moods — as they relate to verbs — indicate a state of being or reality. The indicative mood means that something has actually happened. Verbs in the subjunctive mood express possibility, hypothetical situations, hope, or expectation.

To clarify, let's take a look at an example:
I was outside this morning, and it was rainy.
In this case, the verb to be is in the indicative mood and takes the form of was, because the subject is stating a fact.
If I were to go outside, I'd get wet in the rain.
In this case, the verb to be is in the subjunctive mood and takes the form of were, because the subject is expressing a possibility or hypothesisstating a fact.

According to Fowler's Modern English Usage, the subjunctive mood is recongnizable in modern english in a couple restricted cases:

the third person singular, by the absence of a final "s," as in:
The dean recommends he face expulsion.
More commonly, the subjunctive mood is employed in hypothetical uses of "be" instead of "am," "is" or "are" or "were" instead of was.

The subjunctive can be heard in common phrases like these:
If I were him...
Be that as it may...
Would that it were so...
Subjunctives exist to a great degree in French and Spanish, with complete conjugations that need to be learned to express this mood correctly. In English, it's not anywhere as complex — nor as well known — which may be why it's so commonly misused in conversation, popular culture, and music.

According to Garner's Modern American Usage, the best rule of thumb around the subjunctive mood is to contrast what is being said with what has actually happened. If what you are trying to say is an actual fact, use the indicative mood of the verb. If what you are trying to express reflects a hope, supposition, suggestion or command, you're better off using the subjunctive mood.

Sources: Fowler's Modern English Usage by H.W. Burchfield; Woe is I by Patricia O'Conner; and Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner.

Music from this Episode: "If You Were Here" by The Thompson Twins; "I Wish" by Skee-Lo; "Rich Girl" by Gwen Stefani; and "No Myth" by Michael Penn.

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