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Was Versus Were and Other Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

With all the types of verbs at your creative disposal (Formulaic Subjunctive, Present Subjunctive, Past Subjunctive, Pluperfect Subjunctive, and more), finding the right subjunctive mood can be tricky. In fact, was and were are often confused. Writer’s Relief has zeroed in on a great way to get you in a subjunctive frame of mind.  

Verbs can be expressed in one of three moods:

Indicative Verbs: She picks up litter.

Imperative Verbs: Pick up that litter.

Subjunctive Verbs: If only she were to pick up the litter.

Most of us cringe when we hear “If only I was president of this country…” In the strictest sense, it should be “If only I were president,” using the subjunctive—a mood used to express condition, hypothesis, possibility, speculation, and feelings, rather than actual fact. But often in dialogue, the subjunctive sounds too formal. (Imagine a teenage character saying, “Dude, I wish I were a superhero—that would be awesome!”)

You’re more likely to see “It is imperative that he is present for the meeting” rather than “It is imperative that he be present for the meeting.” The latter uses the subjunctive mood correctly, but it does sound a bit stiff for some writers’ taste. The subjunctive mood has been called “pretentious,” and some claim that it’s dying out in modern literature. Perish the thought! (There’s that subjunctive again!)

If you’re feeling confused, don’t worry. You’re not alone. The declining use of the subjunctive in the English language makes it confusing and difficult to use correctly, but it does have its place, especially in formal written expression.

Some examples of the various forms:

Formulaic Subjunctive Verbs (common expressions)

if it please the court

truth be told

God save the queen

try as you might

be that as it may

Present Subjunctive Verbs

The boss requests that they stop the drilling immediately.

We insist he be appointed at once.

Past Subjunctive Verbs

The boss requested that they stop the drilling immediately.

I wish she weren’t leaving tomorrow.

Submit to Review Board

Pluperfect Subjunctive Verbs

If you hadn’t told me, I would have said the wrong thing.

Future Subjunctive Verbs

If he were to die tomorrow, the inheritance would be mine.

Come tomorrow, that group will be miles away.

More Verb Examples:

The judge recommends that he be put to death.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

He recommended that each waitress report her tips.

May the Lord bless you.

I demand that he be taken away at once.

If I should go, will you take care of my cat?

It is important that we donate blood.

He acted as if he were guilty.

I move that the bill be put to a vote.

If you still aren’t quite sure of whether you’ve struck the right tone with your verbs, our proofreaders are here to help! Submit your work to our Review Board or call us today!

3 Responses to Was Versus Were and Other Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

  1. That is most interesting. I have been using the subjunctive without knowing that it is subjunctive. Most of the people are like drivers who drive cars without being able to tell an oil filter from carburetor. I find it quite elegant and not at all pretentious. It may be right for characters in books to use grammatically incorrect language, but otherwise one must follow the rules of grammar, because, in fact, these rules have arisen due to the nature of the language and not because someone sat down and wrote them out deliberately. To me, "If I were the President" comes off the tongue naturally, "If I was the President".

  2. Thanks for your article on the subjunctive — I found it most interesting. My first encounter with this was in middle school, when I came home after learning about the French subjunctive to tell my father, ending with "and English doesn’t have a subjunctive." He set me straight. Dad always insisted on proper grammar — in fact, he was pretty much a fanatic on the subject.

  3. Posted for Helene Lee.

    Enjoy your informative e-mails. This one, under FUTURE SUBJUNCTIVE – MORE EXAMPLES – well, upon a second reading I began laughing. This section reads like a short, short story – Flash Fiction. A humorous story with a bit of irony tossed in.

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