Not everything you post on your website is, strictly speaking, true.
No, no: we’re not implying that you’ve been fibbing—or even shading the truth. We’re just observing that an important part of human communication involves saying things that aren’t true at the current time. We express our desires, hopes, commands, or even flights of whimsy in order to speculate about the future. Without the power to talk about alternatives to this moment’s reality, our imagination would wither and our ability to cope with changing circumstances would fade away.
But how can we talk about things that are pure speculation without confusing others about what is true and what is not?
Many languages have developed a method to signal the listener or reader that this sort of “contrary to fact” communication is underway. A special class of verb forms, called the subjunctive mood, handles the job. English uses the subjunctive, too, although it’s much reduced from its heyday centuries ago.
Last Chance to Turn Back: There Be Treacherous Footing Ahead
Now, you’re a busy person and the subjunctive mood is a tough topic to master. So, for the first time ever, I’m giving you permission to skip this essay. The chance that you’ll make a catastrophic grammar mistake involving the subjunctive mood is tiny. If other business presses on you, take care of it.
If, on the other hand, you’re willing to spend five minutes to get a deeper understanding of the language you rely on (and also to make sure a subjunctive error will never appear on your website), then refill your teacup and follow along. Oh, and try one of those little cookies—they’re delicious!
If I Were a Rich Man
The term for the normal, factual writing style of prose is called the “indicative mood.” In contrast, the subjunctive mood unlocks the riches of English by allowing us to express our wishes, hopes, and dreams. English has retained two different patterns of how this is done in regular communication…
The Past Subjunctive
What grammar experts call “past subjunctive” constructions don’t necessarily deal with past events. The “past” concept comes into play because the word “were”—a past form of the verb to be—is used. While we would normally expect to see “were” used with a plural subject, in the subjunctive mood the subject will be a singular noun, or a singular pronoun such as I, it, she, or he. Examples will clearly show how the subjunctive mood sets the stage for talking about situations that are contrary to fact:
- If Suzanne were only three inches taller, she could ride the Mega Coaster at the county fair.
- James would call ahead if he were running late for the meeting.
- If I were in your shoes, I would call the police.
- I wish it were six o’clock.
The Present Subjunctive
A phrase in the subjunctive mood is used after verbs indicating requests, commands, orders, and similar concepts. The word “that” often introduces the subjunctive phrase, but it can also be omitted. The subjunctive verb will look like the basic infinitive form of the verb, even when the subject of the phrase is singular; for instance, we’re used to seeing (indicative mood) sentences such as Mary sings, but the subjunctive version would be Mary sing. Check out these examples:
- The music teacher demanded that Mary sing “O mio babbino caro” while juggling flaming torches.
- Dr. Thompson urged that Frank monitor his blood sugar more closely.
- I propose our family visit Barcelona for vacation this year.
- God bless America!
When expletive clauses starting with “it” indicate importance or urgency, they are followed by present subjunctive phrases. Examples:
- It’s vital that she file an immediate appeal of her denied disability claim.
- It is best that the surgeon amputates the little toe before the infection spreads.
Finally, the present subjunctive shows up as the verb “be,” used with singular and plural subjects alike. This particular phrasing now sounds very old-fashioned to modern ears, and you can expect some raised eyebrows if you overuse it. Consider these examples:
- It’s essential Ms. Abrams be in Newark for the board meeting next Monday.
- Will I go to prison if I be found guilty?
- “If this be treason, make the most of it.” —Patrick Henry
- If truth be told, I never really loved you.
“Though This Be Madness, Yet There Is Method in ’t.”
If you are responsible for writing website content for your law firm, medical practice, or other small business, you may be wondering whether it’s worth trying to memorize the rules for the subjunctive mood.
Memorize? Maybe not. But you should be familiar enough with the subjunctive to use it comfortably. Readers respond better to well-written content, even if they cannot name or identify where a specific error lies. When you use English correctly, your potential clients, patients, and customers will respond.
And let’s be honest here: content writers do make mistakes when it comes to the subjunctive mood. See if you can spot the errors in these recent scraps of content writing:
- “When you place a loved one in a nursing home, you expect that she will be taken care of as though she was a member of the staff’s own family.”
- “Do not worry about interrupting someone’s sleep. You would want to be awakened if the situation was reversed.”
- “For a person to experience long-term results, it is important that he continues the exercise program developed by his physical therapist.”
- “As if a divorce wasn’t stressful enough, you now need to decide what to do about the joint business you own.”
Perhaps none of those examples made you wince, but there are no nuggets of gold there. However, look at a few other examples in which the subjunctive is used correctly, and the gold shines through:
- “But what if your home—the place where you live with your family and the place that provides you with financial security—were literally rotting?”
- “If you were going to jump out of a plane, you’d need more than a parachute: you need someone to tell you when to jump, when to pull the cord, how to land, and how to handle countless other little details that can make the difference between life and death.”
- “While you could still technically file a case, the nursing home attorneys would quickly file a motion with the court claiming that the statute of limitations had expired and asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.”
- “What if there were a drug that could help you with your morning sickness—a drug that could ease your nausea and help you get through the day?”
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