Featured journalists: John and Sally McKenna
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This is the final part of our three-part series on grammatical moods. This first part covered the basics of grammatical moods and explained how to use the indicative mood. The second part covered the imperative mood. If you haven’t read the second section yet, it’s imperative that you do before reading on. You can find the second part here.
This final part of the series covers the subjunctive mood — the most difficult of the English major moods.
The subjunctive mood is used when making subjective, non-factual remarks. It’s usually used to make a wish or to present a hypothetical situation.
The subjunctive mood deals with non-factual statements and, in this sense, is the complete opposite of the indicative mood. Despite this, however, these two moods are almost impossible to tell apart. For example:
Subjunctive: It’s important she learn how moods work.
Indicative: It’s important she learns how moods work.
One way to tell the subjunctive and indicative clauses apart is to see whether the sentence uses “was” or “were”. “Were” tends to be used in subjunctive forms, whereas “was” tends to be used in indicative forms.
Generally, we use “was” when something definite has occurred, whereas we use “were” if we’re less sure if something has occurred. “Was” is assertive and factual, but “were” is more ambiguous.
Unfortunately, neither of these verbs are used in the example above. So, how do we tell which example uses the subjunctive mood?
The difference is that the first example uses the verb “learn”, rather than “learns”. In this context, “learn” is like “were”, and “learns” is more like “was”. “Learn” refers to learning in an abstract way, whereas “learns” refers to an actual act of learning.
In modern English, it isn’t always possible to tell the subjunctive and indicative moods apart. In fact, the subjunctive and indicative mood are often identical in form, and you can’t tell them apart without investigating the context of the situation.
Whenever this difficulty arises, just remember that the subjunctive mood is used in hypothetical situations, or whenever the speaker is unsure about whether something has occurred.
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