Every time I hear someone say, “If I were you” or “I wish I were going,” it always surprises me. When I hear people say things like, “It’s crucial you be there,” I’m even more surprised.
Chances are, if you asked these people why they used “were” instead of “was” or “be” instead of “are,” many couldn’t tell you. If you asked them to explain the subjunctive mood, most couldn’t tell you that, either.
Yet without even fully understanding the subjunctive, people use it correctly all the time.
It’s when we stop to think about it that we can get messed up: For example, if it’s correct to say “I was going,” why do we suddenly change “was” to “were” the minute we make it a wish or an if? Similarly, if we use “are” in “you are there,” why would we change it to “be” if tacked “it’s crucial” on front of the sentence?
The reason is that those ifs, wishes, and statements of necessity actually cause a mood change in the sentence. Sentences come in three moods. The indicative is the most common mood. It refers to simple statements like “I am here” and “you are going.” The imperative mood means commands: “Get my slippers.” “Eat more vegetables.”
The only other mood in the English language, the subjunctive, is little understood and half-dead. It’s undergoing a transition from a time when it was much more common in our language, hence the way the word “be” can change a normal sentence into pirate talk: “We be setting sail, matey.”
If you don’t want to learn the subjunctive, you don’t have to. Making your verbs conform to subjunctive forms is often optional and the rest of the time it comes naturally. But if you’ve ever wondered how “I was here” and “He is on time” become “If I were here” and “It’s crucial he be on time,” here’s how it works.
The subjunctive mood, according to “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” describes any sentence with conditions contrary to fact, including suppositions (if I were taller) and wishes (I wish I were taller), as well as demands (I demand he go now), suggestions (I suggest he go now) or statements of necessity (It’s crucial he go now).
But that’s just the “when” of the subjunctive. Here’s the “how”: In the past tense, the subjunctive only really changes one verb, “to be.” In indicative sentences, the simple past tense of “be” is “was” or “were,” but in the subjunctive, it’s always “were.”
So the indicative “I was,” “he was,” “we were,” “you were” and “they were” become in the subjunctive “I were,” “he were,” “we were,” “you were” and “they were.” Because some of those were “were” in the indicative anyway, you only end up changing the first-person and third-person forms: I and he/she/it.
In the present tense, the subjunctive affects not just “be,” but all verbs. You form it by replacing the conjugated form with the base form, which you can think of as the infinitive without the “to.”
So in “to walk” the base form is “walk” and you’d plug that in for the conjugated form “walks” to get a subjunctive sentence like “It’s crucial he walk every day.” But, again, most subjects would have used “walk” in the indicative, anyway: “I walk,” “you walk,” “we walk,” “they walk,” leaving only he, she and it with “walks.”
The only irregular form is “be”, which in the present tense indicative is “am,” “is” or “are. So the indicative “You are on time” becomes in the subjunctive “It’s crucial you be on time.”
To me, it’s pretty impressive how often people get that right.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.