The subjunctive is a set of forms of a verb which express states that do not exist. There are two sorts of subjunctive in English: the present subjunctive and the past subjunctive. In form, the present subjunctive is the same as the infinitive, so the present subjunctive of to be is: I be, you be, he/she/it be, we be, they be. There is no s on the end of the third person singular: he go; she leave; it have.
The present subjunctive has three uses in modern English. First, it follows verbs, nouns or adjectives that express the idea of command, suggestion or possibility: I suggested that he leave; It is my recommendation that she not be appointed; It is fitting that she resign.
This use of the present subjunctive is common in American English. In British English it is more usual to use should: I suggested that he should leave, but it seems that the present subjunctive may be on the increase.
Second, it is used in formal English in clauses beginning with words such as if; although; whether and lest: If that be the case, there is little more we can do; Tie her up securely, lest she escape.
This use of the present subjunctive tends to sound stilted and old-fashioned, and in everyday speech and writing the indicative is usually used instead: If that is the case…, but again American English uses it more readily than British English.
Third, it is used in certain fixed phrases, such as far be it from me; be that as it may; God save the Queen; come what may; suffice it to say; heaven forbid; perish the thought.
The past subjunctive effectively relates only to the verb to be, where it takes the form were. It is used to express hypothetical states, and comes after the verbs wish and suppose, conjunctions such as if; if only; as; though; whether, and the phrases would rather and would that: I wish she were here; If I were you, I’d resign; Would that he were still alive.
It is widely used in everyday English, but in non-formal contexts it is often replaced by was in the first and third person singular: I wish she was here. In formal or literary English, the order of if-clauses can be reversed and the if omitted: Were I you, I’d resign.
The following is a mini-tutorial on the use of the Subjunctive. After you have studied the tutorial, complete the associated exercises. If you already know how to use this verb form, you can skip the explanation and go directly to the exercises.
Use the simple form of the verb. The simple form is the infinitive without the “to.” The simple form of the verb “to go” is “go.” The Subjunctive is only noticeable in certain forms and tenses.
The Subjunctive is used to emphasize urgency or importance. It is used after certain expressions (see below).
I suggest that he study.
Is it essential that we be there?
Don recommended that you join the committee.
The Subjunctive is only noticeable in certain forms and tenses. In the examples below, the Subjunctive is not noticeable in the you-form of the verb, but it is noticeable in the he-form of the verb.
You try to study often. You-form of “try”
It is important that you try to study often. Subjunctive form of “try” looks the same.
He tries to study often. He-form of “try”
It is important that he try to study often. Subjunctive form of “try” is noticeable here.
Verbs Followed by the Subjunctive
The Subjunctive is used after the following verbs:
• to advise (that)
• to ask (that)
• to command (that)
• to demand (that)
• to desire (that)
• to insist (that)
• to propose (that)
• to recommend (that)
• to request (that)
• to suggest (that)
• to urge (that)
Dr. Smith asked that Mark submit his research paper before the end of the month.
Donna requested Frank come to the party.
The teacher insists that her students be on time.
Expressions Followed by the Subjunctive
The Subjunctive is used after the following expressions:
• It is best (that)
• It is crucial (that)
• It is desirable (that)
• It is essential (that)
• It is imperative (that)
• It is important (that)
• It is recommended (that)
• It is urgent (that)
• It is vital (that)
• It is a good idea (that)
• It is a bad idea (that)
It is crucial that you be there before Tom arrives.
It is important she attend the meeting.
It is recommended that he take a gallon of water with him if he wants to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Negative, Continuous and Passive Forms of Subjunctive
The Subjunctive can be used in negative, continuous and passive forms.
The boss insisted that Sam not be at the meeting.
The company asked that employees not accept personal phone calls during business hours.
I suggest that you not take the job without renegotiating the salary.
Jake recommended that Susan be hired immediately.
Christine demanded that I be allowed to take part in the negotiations.
We suggested that you be admitted to the organization.
It is important that you be standing there when he gets off the plane.
It is crucial that a car be waiting for the boss when the meeting is over.
I propose that we all be waiting in Tim’s apartment when he gets home.
Should as Subjunctive
After many of the above expressions, the word “should” is sometimes used to express the idea of subjunctiveness. This form is used more frequently in British English and is most common after the verbs “suggest,” “recommend” and “insist.”
The doctor recommended that she should see a specialist about the problem.
Professor William suggested that Wilma should study harder for the final exam.