In The Mood for Subjunctives


Test yourself! Can you answer the following grammar questions correctly?

1. If I _____ a billionaire, I would spend my days catching bats.

(a) am

(b) is

(c) were

(d) was

2. Stephy demands that Donald ______ a dugong for her.

(a) caught

(b) catches

(c) catch

(d) catching

3. It is important that Abraham _____ aware of the risks associated with the reckless pastime of vampire-catching.

(a) is

(b) was

(c) be

(d) are

If you chose (c) for all three questions, congratulations; you are one of the few who understand subjunctives!

Huh, what are subjunctives? The subjunctive is a specific verb form, or in grammar parlance, a specific verb mood.

For question 1, the subjunctive expresses something you wish for, or a hypothetical rather than actual situation. (Example not applicable to Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Bruce Wayne, etc.) In such cases, were is used regardless of the tense of the sentence or whether the noun is in singular or plural form.

In question 2, catch is used instead of catches. In this case, the subjunctive is used to indicate that something is being suggested or demanded (the imperative mood). Examples of imperative verbs include 'command', 'recommend', 'suggest', etc.

In question 3, be is used instead of is. Although there is no imperative verb in the sentence, the word 'important' is semantically related to imperative verbs. Other examples of such words include 'necessary', 'crucial', 'critical', etc.

The way subjunctive verbs are used often trips people up because it seems to contradict the standard subject-verb agreement rules people are generally more acquainted with.

The subjunctive mood is also used in comparisons involving phrases such as 'as if' and 'as though' and set phrases such as 'come what may' and 'so be it', but we'll leave that for another day.

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