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  1. onegame's Avatar
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    #1

    The Subjunctive in English

    Hello,

    I just read for the first time about the use of the subjunctive but I couldn't fully understand it's different usages in English. Could you please explain to me when and how it is used? And, is it acceptable to use it in formal essays?

    I'd appreciate your help. Regards :)

  2. Barb_D's Avatar
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    #2

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    The subjunctive has a few "flavors." It's generally considered formal use so it would be quite acceptable in formal essays.

    When something is contrary to fact, you can use the subjuntive. I'm told that this is more common in the US than in the UK, and I have no idea how common it is in other dialects. It looks like the past.

    For example:
    If I were rich, I'd buy that painting. (I am not rich. Contrary to fact.)
    If I were you, I'd take the job with IBM. (I am not you.)
    If you were rich -- this looks the same as the regular mood.
    If he were rich --

    Here's text from the OWL at Purdue (Purdue OWL) -One of the best online references I know.

    When verbs show something contrary to fact, they are in the subjunctive mood.
    When you express a wish or something that is not actually true, use the past tense or past perfect tense; when using the verb 'to be' in the subjunctive, always use were rather than was:
    Examples:

    • If he were here... (Implied: ...but he's not.)
    • I wish I had something to eat. (Implied: ...but I don't.)
    • It would be better if you had brought your books with you. (Implied: ...but you haven't brought them.)
    I'm not a teacher, but I write for a living. Please don't ask me about 2nd conditionals, but I'm a safe bet for what reads well in (American) English.

  3. 5jj's Avatar
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    #3

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    As far as BrE is concerned, the subjunctive is virtually dead.

    The present subjunctive survives only in a few expressions that are best regarded as fixed idioms. Examples include: Long live the Queen; Britannia rule the waves Note the absence of the -s ending of the indicative.

    The past subjunctive is identical in form with the past indicative for all verbs exept BE, and so there is no need to worry about it, except for BE. Even with BE, many speakers of BrE do not use it except in the phrase if I were you. Even here, probably the majority say if I was you.

    The subjunctive is more widely used in AmE. I'll let an American explain how it's used.

    ps. I see Barb posted her response while I was writing mine.

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    #4

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    There is also the subjunctive in "that" clauses, like "I insist that you be quiet."

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    #5

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    ***** NOT A TEACHER *****


    May I just add my two cents to the other posters' excellent answers?

    The subjunctive is really awesome.

    1. He comes to school early every day.

    2. I demand/request/ order that he come to school early every day.

    *****

    In No.1, we use the indicative because it is a fact. It is true. He does come early every day.

    But in No. 2, we use the subjunctive because it is only my demand or request or order. It has nothing to do with the facts. In fact,

    he may ignore my demand and continue to come late every day. And there is nothing that I can do about it.

    For many Americans, it does not make sense to say "I demand that he comes every day."

  4. Barb_D's Avatar
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    #6

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    So, as I said, the subjunctive as a couple ways it shows up. One is in the "looks like past" form of "not true" (if I were... but I'm not).

    The other is this demand/request/order form. In that case you use the "bare infinitive" form of the verb. That's the main verb, without "to."

    I suggest he leave at once.
    I required that he come before me.
    I ordered he be removed from my presence.
    I'm not a teacher, but I write for a living. Please don't ask me about 2nd conditionals, but I'm a safe bet for what reads well in (American) English.

  5. onegame's Avatar
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    #7

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    Thank you for your help. It made the image clear for me :)
    But I still have one more question. Can we use the subjunctive in formal essays?

  6. Barb_D's Avatar
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    #8

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    Quote Originally Posted by Barb_D View Post
    It's generally considered formal use so it would be quite acceptable in formal essays.
    I responded in my first post.
    I'm not a teacher, but I write for a living. Please don't ask me about 2nd conditionals, but I'm a safe bet for what reads well in (American) English.

  7. Raymott's Avatar
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    #9

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    Quote Originally Posted by 5jj View Post
    As far as BrE is concerned, the subjunctive is virtually dead.
    [...]
    The past subjunctive is identical in form with the past indicative for all verbs exept BE, and so there is no need to worry about it, except for BE.
    The subjunctive is alive and well in English. Whether one needs to worry about it or not from a pedagogical viewpoint is a separate issue. It can certainly be ignored in most cases until some student asks why a certain form is in the past tense in a certain case. And, as we know, this happens often, at least here.
    There's a huge difference between the subjunctive being 'dead', and the subjunctive being unrecognisable as such because it looks like a past indicative, or something else.
    There's also possibly a huge difference between what is true, and what we should teach our students; that apparently leads to some argumentation over this issue.

  8. 5jj's Avatar
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    #10

    Re: The Subjunctive in English

    Quote Originally Posted by Raymott View Post
    There's a huge difference between the subjunctive being 'dead', and the subjunctive being unrecognisable as such because it looks like a past indicative, or something else.
    Words used in grammar are simply shortcuts to describing how the language works. For many languages, including older forms of English, the word 'subjunctive' is a useful word for talking about the way in which we have to use particular forms of verbs in certain situations.

    Such changes in the present tense of English are very rare for most speakers of modern British English. We change the form of only one verb in the past tense (BE), and then only in the first and third persons Even then, the majority of speakers do not do that, except for posssibly, "If I were you, ...".

    We certainly use the past tense of verbs when we wish to distance in reality, but whether there is any justification for claiming that this is a subjunctive in the modern languae is questionable. If a thing is unrecognisable under a different name, is there any point in giving it a different name?

    1. I had a pen.
    2. I wish I had a pen
    .

    It seems to me that noting that the so-called 'past' tense in #1 distances the 'having' in time, and in #2 in reality is useful. Labelling 'had' in #1 'indicative' and in #2 'subjunctive' seems rather artificial.

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