Getting a Grip on Subjunctives in English. by David Bolton
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Getting a Grip on Subjunctives in English 

When learning a foreign language such as French, German or Spanish, you will sooner or later have to deal with the subjunctive mode, and its corresponding verb forms. No matter what your native language, this probably will be a difficult task, not only because of the number of different verb forms you will have to memorize, but perhaps even more so due to an insufficient understanding of the real-life situations in which the subjunctive mode can, should and even must be used.

First of all, don't think of "subjunctives" as being some sort of devil that was invented to torture you when you learn a foreign language. On the contrary, they're your friends! After all, without subjunctives, how else could you express ideas such as "If I were rich, I would buy a new Mercedes!" or "If Abe Lincoln were alive today, and could see Washington, D.C, he would not believe his eyes."

The first few articles in this series attempt to help us understand how we express "unreal" situations (for which subjunctives are commonly used) in English; subsequent articles on learning a foreign language will then explain how the same ideas are put into words using the corresponding forms in German, French, and Spanish.

If you have experience teaching a foreign language, you already know that the subjunctive mode can be quite confusing for native English speakers, since their forms have, to a great degree, disappeared from our language. We should begin, therefore by taking a look at a very common situation in which many languages routinely use subjunctive forms, even though we have adopted simple past tense verb forms, which we then use to describe "unreal" circumstances.

When we want to express a thought about something that is not "real", we use the subjunctive mode. For example: "I am not in Rome right now, but if I were in Rome, I would visit the Vatican."

The "I were" in "if I were" is known as the subjunctive mode: it concerns a situation that is not real. The sentence as a whole is known as a "speculative conditional", as it expresses a circumstance that would, under a certain condition, happen.

There are two clauses in this sentence:

1) The dependent clause ("If I were in Rome"), in which the verb is in the so-called "subjunctive" (expresses something unreal: after all, I am really not in Rome right now.)

2) The independent clause ("I would visit the Vatican"); the verb is in conditional mode (that uses "would" in English).

These days, the subjunctive forms have largely disappeared in English. For example, in the above sentence, many people today would say:

"If I was in Rome, I would visit the Vatican." Being a lover of precision in speech, I must admit that I cringe when I hear this, for "if I was in Rome" is ambiguous in its meaning. People who use "was" in the above situation are using it to express an "unreal" situation, i.e., "I am not in Rome, but if I was (were), I would..."

Yet consider this sentence: "If I was in Rome, I have totally forgotten it."

Here, the situation is not unreal: perhaps, for example, a very old person has forgotten much of what he did in life. Someone tells him that 40 years ago, he was in Rome. The senior citizen replies:

"If I was in Rome..." that is, maybe he actually was but has forgotten it.

Because this sentence is not about something unreal, the second part is not in conditional mode: "I have totally forgotten it." (present perfect)

Therefore, when we begin "if I were...", it immediately tells the listener that the situation is unreal, as opposed to something that really did (or really may have) happened in the past. Thus, the distinction between "if I were" and "if I was" is quite legitimate, and they should both be used, depending on the situation.

Okay, I readily admit that my tastes are quite old-fashioned in this respect. As early as the 18th century, the subjunctive forms were already being substituted by forms of the simple past (the "was" in our example), as I myself have seen when reading the works of people like John Adams, our second president, and Adam Smith, author of the famous book on economics "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" (1776). So I guess I'll just have to get used to the fact that our language is losing its precision, at least as far as verb forms are concerned!

We have already seen how, in English, the past subjunctive form of "to be" - that uses "were" for all persons: if I were, if you were, if he were, if we/you/they were - has largely given way to the use of simple past forms: "If I was rich, if you were rich, if he was rich" etc.

Why is this? Well, in the case of the subjunctive mood, the reason is that the verb forms used for this type of subjunctive (somewhat confusingly known as the "past subjunctive" form, even though, in examples such as the one above, it is used in a present tense situation: "If I were rich right now...") are for the most part identical to the forms of the simple past.

A short look at the forms of the verb "to be", both in simple past tense, as well as our past subjunctive, will make things clearer:

Past tense: I was, you were, he/she/it was; we were, you were, they were.

Past Subjunctive (but used for present tense, remember?): I were, you were, he/she/it were, we were, you were, they were.

If the forms "I were" and "he were" seem strange to you, remember that these are used in the subjunctive mood, in sentences such as:

"If I were you, I would not do that." or: "If he were here, he would agree with me."

However, many people would, in the second sentence, say:

"If he was here, he would agree with me" (That is, using the past tense form "was" instead of the subjunctive form "were"), and yet practically no one would do this in the first sentence. Or have you ever heard anyone say "If I was you, I wouldn't do that?" Here, everyone uses the subjunctive "were".

Well, if you expect people to always speak in a way consistent with the logical rules of grammar, you are in for a lot of disappointments in life! And seriously speaking, why should they? Language is alive; it grows, and changes as people use it. What today is considered a misuse of a certain verb form will, as long as enough people make the same mistake over a long enough period of time, one day be considered correct.

But let's get back to the forms in the past tense, and past subjunctive (used for present tense).

You will see that in the past tense, the first and third persons singular are "was" (I was, he was); all the other forms are "were". In the subjunctive, however, "were" is used for all the persons. Therefore, if we begin a sentence in, for example, the second person: "If you were...", we cannot tell whether the rest of the sentence will follow in conditional - e.g. "If you were in Rome, you would visit the Vatican", or whether that "were" is simple past: "If you were in Rome last year, you never told me!"

No wonder so many people have (usually subconsciously) chosen to simply use the more-common past tense forms - including "was", even in conditional sentences of the speculative type, that really require the subjunctive form!


If you were kind, you would definitely "like" this page...

Let's now look at subjunctives in a few other languages:
Subjunctives in English, German, French and Spanish

English for Spanish Speakers

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