Subjunctive | Grammar | EnglishClub

She insists that he come.

The English subjunctive is a special, relatively rare verb form that expresses something desired or imagined.

We use the subjunctive mainly when talking about events that are not certain to happen. For example, we use the subjunctive when talking about events that somebody:

  • wants to happen
  • anticipates will happen
  • imagines happening

Base Subjunctive

Form of base subjunctive

The form of the base subjunctive is extremely simple. For all verbs and all persons, the form is the base of the verb, for example: be, have, do, go, sing, work

The base subjunctive does not use any other forms (goes, sings, works).

This table shows the base subjunctive in all persons, using the verbs be, work and sing as examples:

be work sing
I be work sing
you be work sing
he, she, it be work sing
we be work sing
you be work sing
they be work sing

Note that the subjunctive does not change at all according to person (I, you, he etc).

Use of base subjunctive

In certain that clauses

The base subjunctive is typically used in that clauses after two structures:

1. suggest-verb (or noun) + that

  • advise, ask, command, demand, desire, insist, order, prefer, propose, recommend, request, suggest
  • command, demand, order, proposal, recommendation, request, suggestion

2. advisable/anxious-adjective + that

  • advisable, best, crucial, desirable, essential, imperative, important, necessary, unthinkable, urgent, vital
  • adamant, anxious, determined, eager, keen

Look at these sentences which include examples of the above:

main clause
that clause
with subjunctive
He suggests that you   be present at the meeting.
The board recommend that he   join the company.
He requested that the car park not be locked at night.
main clause
that clause
with subjunctive
They made a suggestion that we be early.
He made a proposal that the company buy more land.
The president has issued an order that the secretary resign next month.
main clause
that clause
with subjunctive
It is advisable that she   rest for a week.
It was essential that the army   advance rapidly.
After the landing, it will be vital that every soldier not use a radio.
main clause
that clause
with subjunctive
Tara is anxious that you   return soon.
They are keen that he not be hurt.
We were determined that it   remain secret.

Notice above↑:

  • the position of not when creating negation
  • that the main clause can be in any tense

Look at some more examples, which include that clauses in negative and continuous form:

  • The judges order that he stay the execution.
  • We have made a request that we not be disturbed.
  • It is important that a car be waiting when we arrive.
  • The manager was eager that his visitor see the new building.
  • The board of directors recommended that he not be dismissed.
  • Have you seen my suggestion that work hours be reduced?
The use of the subjunctive as above is more common in American English than in British English, where should structures are often used:

  • It was essential that we should vote the following day.
  • He requested that the car park should not be locked at night.

be after if

We sometimes use subjunctive be after if/whether, though this is rather formal, especially in British English:

If that be (not) the case, I intend to report the matter.
Whether he be   prepared or not,

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. William Shakespeare

Fixed expressions

Note the following fixed expressions with the subjunctive:

  • Bless you!
  • God bless America!
  • God save the Queen.
  • Long live the President!
  • Heaven forbid!
  • Heaven help us!


Form of were-subjunctive

I were
you were
he, she, it were
we were
you were
they were

Note that the subjunctive does not change according to person (I, you, he etc).

Use of were-subjunctive

In the following examples, you can see that we sometimes use the were-subjunctive (instead of was) after:

Note that in these cases were is always correct, but was is possible in informal language:

Formal with were Informal with was
I would go if I were younger. I would go if I was younger.
If he were not so mean, he would buy one. If he wasn’t so mean, he would buy one.
I’d tell her if I were you. We do not normally say “if I was you” even in colloquial language.
It’s not as if I were ugly. It’s not as if I was ugly.
She acts as if she were the Queen. She acts as if she was the Queen.
I wish I weren’t so slow! I wish I wasn’t so slow!
I wish the computer were working. I wish the computer was working.
Suppose she were here. What would you say? Suppose she was here. What would you say?

If I Were a Rich Man Fiddler on the Roof
If I were a boy Beyoncé
If I were a carpenter
And you were a lady,
Would you marry me anyway?
Would you have my baby? Tim Hardin

Strange as it may seem, although the words hope and wish seem to be similar, we do not use the subjunctive with hope. Correct sentences with hope would be, for example:

  • I hope that this computer works.
  • I hope that this computer is working.

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