I like to freak out my mid-level students by telling them that English is so weird we can even use verbs in the past tense to talk about the future!! If I had the car tomorrow I could go to your party! This makes students and even English speakers who have never studied English academically really stop and think – why is this happening? How is this possible? It all comes down to understanding one particular linguistic concept: The Subjunctive Mood.
The Subjunctive Mood, sometimes called the conjunctive mood is something that occurs in many languages. It is particularly important in all of the romance language such as French or Italian. It causes a lot of seemingly strange things to happen in a sentence that are quite baffling to say the least. It causes seemingly illogical verb choices that seem to create a lack of agreement between the subject and verb as well as between time and tense.
The subjunctive mood is used to suggest unreality/uncertainty in the sentences. (Irrealis modus) These sentences in English are generally discussing wishes, conditionaility, proposals and emotions.
In the present tense the subjunctive form generally translates into a constant verb form (bare infinitive) regardless of the subject. So..
He suggested that I go home. (looks fairly normal)
I suggested that he go home. (no third person ‘s’)
It is necessary that he own up to his mistake. (no third person ‘s’)
This form looks even stranger when you use the BE form.
You look sleepy. I suggest that you be in bed as soon as possible.
He suggested that I be as quick as possible.
She suggested that he be as quiet as as he could.
These are classic examples of the subjunctive mood and they show how the grammar rule for 3rd person ‘s’ (he goes) doesn’t apply in these particular sentences.
The subjunctive also occurs in sentences that appear to be counterfactual and demonstrate a discrepancy with reality. That is why the subjunctive mood can be used in sentences that begin with ‘I wish…”.
I wish you were here right now. (you are not)
I wish I had known that earlier. (I did not)
I wish you could help me. (you cannot)
Contrast this format with the seemingly similar “I hope…”
I hope you will come to my party.
I hope you are feeling better.
The tense does shift back because this is not reflecting a subjunctive mood. That which is ‘hoped for’ has the real possibility of being true.
It is also used in conditional sentences:
I will come to your party if I have time. (not that I will have time.)
I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
Notice that the sentence above uses the ‘were’ form with ‘I’ when typically we know that it should be ‘I was..’ as in the sentence “Yesterday I was sick but today I feel fine.” This is done to maintain the constant form between all subject pronouns, which is typical of subjunctive mood.
If I were there I could help.
If she were there she could help.
If he were there he could help.
Also, if you were wondering what regular NON-speculative language is called: it’s called the INDICATIVE MOOD and suggests that everything being said is a known fact. Eg./ Mary is tired.
Often in reported speech students are told that there is a certain degree of flexibility with regard to whether or not one back-shifts the tense.
I talked to Mary and she said that she is sick. VS
I talked to Mary and she said that she was sick.
The decision about which one to use can often be boiled down to whether or not I use the subjunctive mood to indicate my level of certainty that what was said is still true. The subjunctive mood comes into play when there may be a discrepancy between that which was said and that which is still true.
5 minutes ago I spoke to Mary and she said that she IS sick. (Probably still valid and true.)
2 months ago I spoke to Mary and she said that she WAS sick. (Probably not true anymore.)
What?? You saw Mary at the gym?? I was talking to her 5 minutes ago and she said that she WAS sick. (Appears not to be true.)
So that is the subjunctive mood. I hope that brings you to a deeper understanding of this very complicated linguistic concept. Conversely, if you like, just memorize the rules and the verb forms you should use by heart.
Baffled – very confused
Own up to it – if you own up to a mistake it means that you accept responsibility for it
Discrepancy – a lack of agreement or compatibility between two facts