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What is the Subjunctive?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Generally referred to as the subjunctive mood or tense, the subjunctive refers to a form of verb that qualifies the existence of the subject as being somewhat dependent or doubtful. It is a grammatical phenomenon that occurs in many different languages. In terms of use, the subjunctive can be employed to convey a number of concepts through verbal and written language, although the actual form of the tense will not necessarily be the same from one language to another.

The subjunctive is actually a very diverse tool with the world of grammar. A word in this tense can be used to express such wide ranging concepts as possibility, necessity, emotion, and judgment. It can even be utilized as part of subordinate clauses to indicate commands. In addition, a subjunctive can be an important part of the process of conveying a statement that presents as fact an idea that is contrary to current understandings.

In modern English, using the subjunctive often comes into play in order to more fully articulate not only the action, but also tell something about the nature of the action. For example, it is relatively easy to make the non-subjunctive statement of “We went to the store for food.” However, the simple statement takes on additional meaning and power when the action is restated using a subjunctive tense. “We were required to go to the store and buy food,” provides the understanding of necessity as associated with the task.

There are several categories of groupings of subjunctives. The present and past subjunctive deal with forms. For example, “I own” is a present subjunctive that implies a current state. “I owned” is an example of a past subjunctive that indicates that the form has changed in some manner from a former state.

The pluperfect subjunctive is sometimes referred to as the past perfect subjunctive, and may be used to indicate past tense in a fuller form. It is not unusual for this type to include the use of the word “had” as part of the verbal structure, such as “if I had known” or “if I had been aware.” The verb helps to qualify whatever information follows.

A third noteworthy form is the future subjunctive. Generally meant to quality some future action, this type of verb proposes a possibility. “If I were to change” is an excellent example of this, as it indicates that making some sort of change will impact a future set of circumstances.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By anon133956 — On Dec 13, 2010

I agree with the anon above. There is no subjunctive there. There would be a subjunctive if it were rewritten like this: "We were required that we go to the store to buy food." I corrected it. It should be "to buy", not "and buy". Here, "we go" is subjunctive.

The "I own/I owned" subjunctive comment could have been explained better. I know the subjunctive so I got your implicit meaning, but others might not understand it. You should have explicated this concept more. I would have if I had written this article.

All in all, not bad. If I were grading this, I'd give it a 7 out of 10 on the subjunctive.

By anon106686 — On Aug 26, 2010

There is no subjunctive in "We were required to go to the store and buy food." And I don't understand what you're trying to say with "own".

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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