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Subjunctive mood

The subjunctive mood is a grammatical mood of the verb that expresses wishes, commands (in subordinate clauses), and statements that are contrary to fact.

Table of contents
1 The subjunctive mood in English
2 The subjunctive mood in Romance languages
3 The subjunctive in Indo-European

The subjunctive mood in English

W. Somerset Maugham said that "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." In fact, the subjunctive mood remains an ordinary working feature of English grammar. It is called moribund for the chief reason that it is often indistinguishable from the ordinary present indicative.

The English present subjunctive is formed by the third person singular inflection of a present tense verb, minus its distinctive -(e)s. So if she thinks is the present indicative mood of the verb to think, the subjunctive is she think. . . Older texts that use the archaic pronoun thou form the present subjunctive the same way.

The subjunctive is most distinctive in the verb to be. Here, there is not only a present subjunctive --- be --- but also a past subjunctive, were. No other verb in English has a past subjunctive.

The subjunctive mood is used in English in a number of different ways.

Stock phrases and clichés

The subjunctive mood is used in a number of fossil phrases that are perhaps no longer felt as inflecting the verb in a particular way:

Many of these stock phrases, quotations, and clichés are likely to be falsely analysed as imperatives rather than subjunctives.

Jussive subjunctive

The subjunctive regularly appears in subordinate clauses, almost always a that clause, after verbs of commanding or requesting:

This use of the subjunctive remains lively in all varieties of English, so that a sentence like *I demand that Napoleon surrenders would be perceived as a solecism.

Hypothetical subjunctive

This usage of the subjunctive is called for whenever the situation described by the verb is "hypothetical", whether wished-for, feared, or suggested; the common thread is that the situation is not the current state of affairs. Some linguists call this use of the subjunctive the irrealis. This is the sense in which some claim that the subjunctive in English is moribund. This subjunctive can occur with or without a word like if or whether that specifically marks a phrase as hypothetical. When if is omitted, an inverted syntax is usually used:

In most varieties of English, this subjunctive can be replaced by an indicative when the if form is used:

The unmarked, inverted syntax form --- *Was I the President. . . --- does not occur. However, inverted syntax in itself can be the sign of a subjunctive with a few common verbs other than to be:

The unmarked subjunctive begins to appear in the sixteenth century, and since that time has expanded until it is at least as common as the marked forms. Some use the marked form even in the absence of a hypothetical situation --- He was asked if he were cold --- simply as a conditioned variant that follows if and similar words. This is a hypercorrection.

Another use of the hypothetical subjunctive occurs with the verb "wish":

This, too, is often replaced with the unmarked form.

This subjunctive is not uniform in all varieties of spoken English. It is preserved in speech, at least, in north central North American English, and in some dialects of British English. While it is no longer mandatory, except perhaps in the most formal literary discourse, the reports of its demise have been exaggerated.

The subjunctive mood in Romance languages

The subjunctive mood retains a highly distinct form for nearly all verbs in Spanish and Italian (among other Latin languages), and for a number of verbs in French. All of these languages inherit their subjunctive from Latin, where the subjunctive mood combines both forms and usages from a number of original Indo-European inflection sets, including the original subjunctive and the optative mood.

In French, despite the deep phonetic changes that the language has undergone from the original Latin, which include the loss of many inflections in the spoken language, the subjunctive remains prominent, largely because the subjunctive forms of many common verbs are strongly marked phonetically; compare je sais, "I know", with the subjunctive que je sache. (However, regular verbs have subjunctives homonymous with the indicative in most of the persons: j'aimeque j'aime).

Use of the subjunctive is in many respects similar to English:

In the Romance languages, another widespread use of the subjunctive that English handles differently is to translate a host of desiderative expressions that English would express using the auxiliary verbs let or may. Let there be light! in French, for example, becomes Que la lumière soit!

Also, several formulaic expressions with the word que (in French and Spanish) call for the subjunctive, even though the condition they express is a fact:

Modern French scarcely ever uses the past subjunctive, but Spanish does, for example in hypotheticals after si ("if"). (French would use the imperfect in this case.) In such a case, the main clause is in the conditional mood.

It also uses the past subjunctive in parallel with its jussive use in the present tense:

The subjunctive in Indo-European

The reconstructed, hypothetical Indo-European language, parent to English and the other Germanic languages, as well as Latin and the Romance languages, had two closely related moods that many of the daughter languages combined or confounded: the subjunctive and the optative moods.

In Indo-European, the subjunctive was formed by using the full ablaut grade of the root of the verb, and adding the thematic vowel *-e- or *-o- to the root stem, with the full, primary set of personal inflections. The subjunctive was the Indo-European irrealis, used for hypothetical or contrary to fact situations.

The optative mood was formed with a suffix *-ieh1 or *-ih1 (with a laryngeal). The optative used the clitic set of secondary personal inflections. The optative was used to express wishes or hopes.

Among the Indo-European languages, only Greek, Sanskrit, and to some extent Old Church Slavonic kept the subjunctive and optative fully separate and parallel. The Latin subjunctive is mostly made of optative forms, while some of the original subjunctive forms went to make the Latin future tense, especially in the Latin third conjugation. In Latin, the *-i- of the old optative manifests itself in the fact that the Latin subjunctives typically have a high vowel even when the indicative mood has a lower vowel; Latin rogamus, "we ask", makes a subjunctive rogemus, "let us ask."

In the Germanic languages, subjunctives are also usually formed from old optatives. In German, subjunctives are typically marked with an -e ending, and often with i-umlaut, showing once more the presence of the *-i- suffix that is the mark of the old optative. In Old Norse, an -i typically marks the subjunctive; grefr, "he digs", becomes grafi, "let him dig". While most of the signs of this suffix have been removed in Modern English, the change from was to were in the modern English subjunctive of to be also marks addition of a vowel sound to the subjunctive form, and as such represents an echo of the Indo-European optative marker of five thousand years ago.