When to use the subjunctive

The subjunctive is a specific verb form. It usually expresses something that you wish for, or a hypothetical rather than actual situation:

If only I were ten years younger.

I only wish that what you say were true. 

 It is also used to indicate that something is being suggested or demanded:

The report recommends that he face the tribunal.

It is important that they be aware of the provisions of the Act. 

In modern English it is distinguished from other verb forms only a) by the use of be and were instead of the indicative forms (am/is/are/was) as in the example above; and b) by lacking the final letter -s of the third person singular (he/she/it) in the present tense (in the example above he face, not he faces).

When is it used?

You are most likely to encounter the subjunctive in formal writing or speech. You’ll also encounter it in the following scenarios:

1.  In that-clauses

Nowadays it is probably most frequent in that-clauses with verbs such as demand, insist, pray, recommend, suggest, and semantically related nouns/adjectives, e.g. essential, important, insistence, proposal, etc. 

She declined a seat beside Charles on the sofa. She insisted that Jane sit there.

It was suggested that he wait until the next morning.

It is important that they be aware of the provisions of the Act. 

Note: In most such cases it can be replaced by should + infinitive or by the indicative form of the verb:

She declined a seat beside Charles on the sofa. She insisted that Jane sat there.

It was suggested that he should wait until the next morning.

It is important that they are aware of the provisions of the Act. 

The use of the subjunctive instead of those alternatives is very frequent in American English.

In constructions of this type, any negation not (or never etc.) is normally placed before the subjunctive verb:

One essential quality for a holiday novel is that it not be too light.

I recommend that we not approve this letter.  

This construction is routine in American English, but less common elsewhere.

2. As if…, as though…, if…

After if (or as if, as though, unless) in hypotheses or comparisons:

If that were so, things would be very different.

It was as if Sally were disturbed in some way.

His voice strained as though he were walking on a wire above a pit of sharks.

The indicative may also be used, i.e. was instead of were, in all the examples above, but the subjunctive arguably conveys the hypothetical sense more forcefully.

3. If I were you…

Usage seems to be changing in phrases such as if I were you, if it were up to me, etc. People often say if I was you and if it was up to me, but the subjunctive is preferable in writing, especially any formal or academic prose. The phrase as it were, however, cannot be modified:

Having to ask permission, as it were, to see her friends

Suddenly, as it were overnight, the weather became hot and sultry.

4. Set phrases

For categories 1–3 using the subjunctive is optional. However, there are many set phrases which contain a hidden subjunctive as part of the phrase: 

  • come what may
  • Far be it from me to…
  • God save the Queen!
  • Heaven forbid!
  • Perish the thought!
  • so be it 
  • Thy kingdom come, thy will be done...
  • suffice it to say...
  • woe betide...

Possibly, it is failure to recognize that suffice it to say is subjunctive, with it as the grammatical subject, that leads many people to say suffice to say.

5. At the head of a clause

This kind of construction, with the subject after the verb, is more typically found in writing than in speech, where it might be considered rather formal.

Were I to get drunk, it would help me drown my anguish. 

Unlike rival international fairs, be they in London, New York or Maastricht, the Biennale has enormous popular appeal.

For more on the subjunctive and other verb forms, see Moods.

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Spilt infinitivesRelative clauses

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