In grammar, the subjunctive mood (sometimes referred to as the conjunctive mood) is a verb mood that exists in many languages. It is typically used in dependent clauses to express wishes, commands, emotion, possibility, judgment, necessity, or statements that are contrary to fact at present. The details of subjunctive use vary from language to language.
Examples of the subjunctive in English
The subjunctive has sometimes been used simply as a conditioned variant that follows "if" and similar words even in the absence of a hypothetical situation.
Johnny asked me if I were afraid. (Barbara in Night of the Living Dead (1968))
In the example quoted, "if" is a substitute for the unambiguous word "whether" ("Johnny asked me whether I was afraid"), and lacks the usual, "in the event that" meaning that it has in other usage such as "If we go to bed now, we'll be up at three o'clock".
Demise of the subjunctive
In many dialects of English, the indicative can take the place of the subjunctive, although this is considered erroneous in formal speech and writing. The similarity of the subjunctive and the past tense has led to the confusion between the two, and the error is evident in various pop culture references and music lyrics.
If I was President...
If he was a ghost...
If I was a rich girl...
However, in the context of the examples above, inversion cannot occur with the indicative as it would with the subjunctive; the following are ungrammatical, except insofar as they could be misinterpreted as questions:
Was I the President...
Was he a ghost...
Furthermore, many of the fossil phrases are often re-analyzed as imperative forms rather than as the subjunctive.
According to the Random House College Dictionary, "Although the subjunctive seems to be disappearing from the speech of many, its use is still the mark of the educated speaker."
The subjunctive is not uniform in all varieties of spoken English. However it is preserved in speech, at least in North American English and in many dialects of British English. While use of the subjunctive in natural, informal speech is almost universal among educated speakers, its use is becoming very infrequent among large portions of the population. Some dialects replace it with the indicative or construct it using a modal verb (except perhaps in the most formal literary discourse).
Through the years, some have advocated the formal extinguishment of the subjunctive. W. Somerset Maugham said, "The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible."
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