A useful collection of scholarly summaries of subjunctive use in English (as in “I wish I were a bird” or “God save the Queen”). (Via graywyvern.)

Addendum. Jim at UJG has a good post on the history of modal verbs.


  1. My favorite example:
    If I were president I would lower taxes.
    If I was president, then I don’t remember it.

  2. There are some excellent examples on that site. But they don’t distinguish BE and AmE. The subjective is much more common in the U.S. E.g. their second example ‘It’s not really vital he be involved in this call’ is typically American.

  3. Really! I would have thought our elder cousins would cling more assiduously to the good old verbal ways. You’d think, just in terms of European integration, they’d want to beef up the subjunctive…

  4. Hi LH, could you flesh out my vague notion that you can create subjunctives in English by using a helper verb such as could, should, would, might, ought? It seems to me that these helper verbs are themselves “proper” subjunctive tenses of can, shall, will, may, and ?? (maybe an archaic helper verb of which “ought” was the subjunctive mood). I base this notion on being taught by my German (!!) teacher that koennte, sollte, wuerde, moechte, and ?? were subjunctive voices of koennen, sollen, wollen, moegen.
    So: if I were to say to my wife, “I suggest that we leave”, I would be using subjunctive voice. Would I equally be doing so if I were to say, “I think that we should go”?

  5. No, English (where the subjunctive is a moribund remnant) doesn’t work the same way as German (which has a fully functioning subjunctive mood with its own morphology). What you’re talking about are modal verbs. To quote the Oxford Companion to the English Language, “The central modal verbs are can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would. The marginal modal verbs, sometimes called semi-modal verbs, are dare, need, ought to, used to. All share the following characteristics: (1) They are auxiliary verbs. (2) They have no third-person -s form… (3) They have no non-finite forms (no infinitive, -ing participle, or -ed participle), and therefore in standard English can appear only in initial position in the verb phrase, and cannot occur with each other (although ‘double modal’ forms such as might could go occur in some non-standard varieties, such as Southern US English). (4) All except ought and used are followed by the bare infinitive without to. (5) They have idiosyncratic semantic and formal features, affecting particularly their use in the past tense and in negation.”
    The vast differences betweene apparently similar English and German verbs (should/sollte, can/kann, &c.) causes untold havoc.

  6. So when you utter a sentence containing such a modal verb does it not change the mood — is the “that we should go” above simply declarative?

  7. Well, “mood” isn’t really a standard feature of English sentences; we have modals instead of moods, as it were. But this kind of analysis was never my specialty, and I’m not up to speed on the latest fashions in verbal analysis; anybody want to toss in a few buzzwords here?

  8. I’ve also seen them called pretero-present verbs. (Or did they derive from those?) Was it in Lightfoot’s Historical Syntax? I think it’s a common Germanic philological term.

  9. I found a reference to pretero-present verbs in a syllabus for Anglo-Saxon…

  10. Many moons ago I had a teacher who commented that one would use the subjunctive in my following example when a situation is impossible.
    “I wish I were a dog.” (And that is an impossibility.)
    He suggested that one would say, “I wish I was at home” because that is possible.
    It’s an interesting distinction but was he correct or not?
    Any info would be much appreciated.
    Please and thanks.

  11. He was wrong, and it might afford you some satisfaction to seek him out and tell him so. (If he was an English teacher, it just provides fresh ammunition for the endless lament over declining standards in the profession. I hope he could at least spell.)

  12. Maybe we should spell the subjunctive “wuz”, as in “I wish I wuz a dog.” Then everyone would know it was a subjunctive.

  13. I’ve recently been wondering exactly what the difference is between “I can have done that” and “I could have done that.” Is the latter just the subjunctive? If this is so, I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard anyone say it correctly.
    Denny, The reason why your teacher was wrong is because the subjunctive is ALWAYS used with wishes unlike “if” clauses in which the indicative can be used if the statement can be true (such as this clause). The point of wishing something is that it ISN’T happing, so one is wishing it were happening, unlike hoping.

  14. No, the latter is just an indicative statement using the modal “could.” I’ve never heard anyone use the former (“I can have”), and I’m not sure what it would mean.

  15. Hmmm, That’s what I thought, but I wondered because my German grammar book had a list of the tenses with the modal auxiliary “können.” The list had “Er kann es gemacht haben,” and it had the English next to it and said “He can have done it.” This was listed as present + perfect infinitive (indicative). Then, lower down, it read “Er könnte es gemacht haben” with the English “He could have done it,” and these were listed as past subjunctive + perfect infinitive. One can say “I have to have done it” and “I may have done it,” and those are the present modals, I believe. I’d think that “I can have done it” means that there is a probability of its being true. I don’t know if modal auxiliarys function in this way, as normal verbs do, since my high school books, at least this year, say nothing about modal auxiliary verbs, which is an annoying hindrance in my learning.

  16. In James Kilpatrick’s column on Saturday, he says professional grammarians identify subjunctives as the mandative, optative, the formulaic, the past, and the present. He goes on to say that the only one that matters now is the subjunctive of wish, imagination, demand, or proposal. I would like to know more about the subjunctive knowledge he ascribes to the “professional grammarians.” Thanks for any thoughts.

  17. I learned English grammar from my French teacher. She politely informed me that no one teaches English properly in this country, and unfortunately in my experience I have to agree. Anyway, we made a relatively big deal of studying the French subjunctive, and in passing she commented that in English, our usage of it is almost extinct. So why is it that an entire mode has almost been dropped from our language when, in light of my French teacher and the earlier German discussion here, Europe retains it so much more fully? Even more so, why then do the British retain it the least? I wonder how it came to be that the subjunctive is apparently just not that vital to English speakers.

  18. Eileen, Melissa: Languages change constantly in all sorts of little ways, and over time those add up to major changes like the loss of the subjunctive. We don’t know how this works in detail, although linguists are learning a lot by studying how forms spread from one dialect to another. The important thing to realize is that it doesn’t matter whether a particular meaning is expressed (as in French) through a formal subjunctive or (as in English) otherwise, just as it doesn’t matter whether a particular meaning is expressed in one word (ascendre) or two (go up). Languages have incredibly various ways of expressing things, which is why they’re so much fun to study. The subjunctive, in and of itself, is no more important than the /kh/ sound, which English used to have and no longer does (all those silent ghs used to be pronounced, you know). What matters is that we be able to express whatever we need to.

  19. Eileen: I’d have to agree with languagehat on this one. Just because a grammatical category (subjunctive mood in this case) is no longer expressed with an inflection doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. This affix-centrism is usually the flip-side of the “language is degenerating” observation, rather than the “language is changing” one. And, this is separate from the “is the subjunctive a universal category” question.

  20. Actually, my previous comment was meant to be addressed to Melissa. And this one is addressed to Eileen. “Professional grammarians” sound to my ear somewhat like “normative whiners about the state of the language” but I could be wrong. The subjunctive was named so because in Latin (and Greek) it was a verbal form that was required in what we would call subordinate clauses. The optative was a separate verbal form in Greek and Sanskrit, but not in Latin. The subjunctive form of the verb was used in an optative meaning though, just as in English a periphrasis can be used with an optative sense: “may he be alive.” Old English used to have a present and preterite subjunctive form, which has all but disappeared today. As Jespersen said: moods tend to “express certain attitudes of mind of the speaker towards the contents of the sentence.” Those attitudes tend to be there and are expressible whether a language has a formal category or not. Compare the difference between the conditional “if I was president” and the subjunctive “if I were president” in the first comment above above. Spanish has a conditional verbal form, but Latin didn’t. Does that mean that Spanish in this instance (i.e., in spite of it’s having lost case endings) is better than Latin or just different.

  21. This is a bit off topic, but… should my T-shirt say, “I know it might be wrong, but I wish I were Stacy’s mom,” or “[…] I wish I was Stacy’s mom”?? And I can’t write “I wish *that* I…” because adding the word “that” ruins the rhythm of the song from which I have taken and am modifying this quote to mimic. (My teacher always scolds me for writing run-on sentances and leaving dangling modifiers and such… so sue me.)
    Instant messaging is the ultimate enemeny of grammar and spelling, btw –> I hope 1 of u guyz can plz get bak 2 me. thanx. lol. w/e. (see?)

  22. “I wish I were” is correct.

  23. I would like to know if English has a primary past time or future time of the subjunctive. As in German, “Er sagt, dass er es gesehen habe” If so, when is it used? I don’t know of German’s using the primary for anything other than indirect speech and English’s using it to express suggestions and such e.g. “I suggested that he see it.” (Does German use it like that?) Thanks.

  24. any help with: “I wish I could have enough money to buy a bike.” I know we say and believe its correct: I wish I had enough money… Is this related to the subjunctive? I am confused with desire, plus hypthetical plus modal… YiKES! thanks.

  25. Traditional grammarians would call it a past subjunctive, but that seems to me a useless category for English.

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