It ain’t necessarily so: the subjunctive mood

I’ve blogged about the subjunctive before, but as with nearly everything about grammar and syntax, it’s an evergreen topic. It’s December. I don’t have a tree this year. Here’s my stand-in. (Evergreen. December. Connect the dots, people.)

I bet you use this mood (it’s not a tense, it’s a mood) all the time without even thinking. “If I were you, I wouldn’t open that door.” “It’s important that we be ready to go by five.” There are the two major uses: for stating something contrary to fact (I am in fact not you, and never will be) and for a broad collection of statements about necessity, proposals, commands, suppositions, and suggestions (it’s necessary for us to be ready to go by five).

In my work, I see the first kind of usage done wrong often enough that it’s worth explaining again. 

You’ll use the subjunctive only if what you’re about to say is contrary to fact. It’s not true. It’s not the case.  And it can’t be true at all; it can’t possibly happen. If there’s a chance the thing you’re talking about is true or possible, don’t use the subjunctive mood. 

“If he were kidnapped, we’d have gotten a ransom note by now.” Using the subjunctive here means that it’s not possible he has been stuffed into a canvas bag and then into the back of a RAV4. If you suspect it’s happened, use “was” here. If it’s even possible it’s happened, use “was” here. (I’m not addressing the many other verb/tense options. This is purely an exercise in what not to do and why not to do it.)

“If he was kidnapped, the entire company would be thrown into an uproar.” We’ll say he hasn’t been, but he could be. Perhaps this is being said to the security detail, so they understand why it’s important that Quentin be protected 24/7. (And BOOM, there’s an example of another type of subjunctive statement: one of importance/necessity.)

“If she were late, all hell would break loose.” You’re saying she’s definitely not late, nor is there any chance she might be. No chance of a breakdown on the interstate or a delay on the metro. If it’s possible she is missing, don’t use “were” in that clause. Use “was.”

“If she were suffering from a gunshot wound …” She isn’t, is what this says. Maybe she’s got a stab wound. Maybe she has food poisoning. Whatever it is, it’s not a gunshot wound. “If this were a gunshot wound, it’d point to a number of suspects. But it’s not. She’s been decapitated.”

As you’re writing (or editing), ask yourself if the situation or state is possible. If it isn’t, at all, you can use the subjunctive mood. If there’s any chance the situation or state could be true, stay away from the subjunctive. 

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