I’m in the (Subjunctive) Mood for a Melody

I wish I were the subjunctive mood. So mysterious. So misunderstood. If I were the subjunctive mood, only the cool crowd would get me, man. People would want to plumb my depths, find what lurks beneath these still waters. But my innermost nature would remain an eternal mystery, because I’d be like the wind, baby.

The subjunctive mood has been referred to as a linguistic fossil, and as fewer and fewer people understand it, it falls farther and farther out of use and someday could conceivably disappear entirely. What a pity that would be.

Of the people who do use it, one has to imagine that a good portion of those don’t know why they use it beyond recognizing that it “sounds right.” Someone might sing, “If I were a rich man,” but if pressed on why he or she sang “I were” instead of “I was,” the person would likely have no real idea—and might even fear that an error had been committed.

The Merriam-Webster definition of mood is the “distinction of form or a particular set of inflectional forms of a verb to express whether the action or state it denotes is conceived as fact or in some other manner (as command, possibility, or wish).” (I could have paraphrased the definition right off, but this way I can recommend Harm∙less Drudg∙ery, an informative and entertaining blog from Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper.)

To put it more simply, mood shows the mode or manner that thoughts are expressed. Most people are much more familiar with the indicative mood, used to express facts and opinions and to make inquiries, and the imperative mood, used to give orders and make requests.

The subjunctive mood, marked by seemingly odd verb forms and sometimes known as the malady-sounding conjunctive mood, is used to express statements that are contrary to fact or conditions that are doubtful or unreal, such as wishes and possibilities. Clauses beginning with if are a frequent hideout for subjunctive verbs.

The following are a few examples of subjunctive verbs:

  • If I were taller, it would be you looking up to me.
  • I wish it were a sunnier day.
  • Her command was that we all be on our toes.

Unreal states, wishing, longing even: yes, the subjunctive mood is a dreamer, and what a beautiful thing to be.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “I’m in the (Subjunctive) Mood for a Melody

  1. interesting — you’re right about using “were” verses “was”… it just sounds right.

  2. You have tackled this subject so gently. Wonderful!

  3. yvetted

    Great post! Wonderful to see someone having such fun with language

  4. I am reading a book right now that never correctly uses subjunctive mood, and it’s driving me bananas!

  5. Absolutely loved this, as a language student this made me laugh so much as it reminded me of the first days of learning about the subjunctive. Days where I spent a long time thinking that my teacher was making it all up. Thanks for putting a smile on my face :)

  6. A beautiful portrayal and personification of the subjunctive mood. Cheers

  7. Sessions presents a collection of all your favorite hopeful and contrary-to-fact statements set to music: In a Subjunctive Mood!!!

    “If I were a rich man … ya da da da da da …”

  8. I only learn about subjunctives after taking classes in French and Spanish. It is commonly used in those languages and only realized that English has that mood too after discussing it with a former classmate.

    Subjunctives. Contrary to the fact, but we can hope.

    If I were classy, poised, and beautiful… If I only were…

  9. Isn’t Merriam-Webster the best!

  10. I felt like I was reading a classic novel just now, wonderfully written! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  11. thetemenosjournal

    A true wordsmith. Well done.

  12. I spend half my day communicating in Spanish, and let me assure you, the subjunctive is by no means a fossil in this (and many other) languages ;-)
    Nice illustration of its use in English.

    • james2033

      It’s interesting how language affects the way we think. I wonder how the subjunctive mood is reflected in people whose languages employ it more often.

      • I’m really interested in this, too. But I need to get better at speaking the language before I hit that level. Right now, although I can communicate pretty much anything, I don’t have a “feel” for it yet. That’ll take a few more years… so bear with me ;-) There sure is a good blog post in it!

  13. Lovely use of the subjunctive. I will be sure to guide my students to this beautifully written post.

  14. I love language and its intricacies. Sometimes I feel so alone in this passion for effective use of language. Now I know that this is not the case. Thank you! <3

  15. I support the use of subjunctive, but it’s grammatically compromised by being almost indistinguishable from simple past. what we need is a mood overhaul that renders it more broadly comprehensible. My (not serious) recommendation is the present form plus -a (or -da if the verb ends with a vowel). ambiguity solved! I wish we cana do something like this. If I ama in charge, I would change it.

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