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The problems of the Subjunctive Mood in English

The problems of the Subjunctive Mood in English

Federal Agency on education

State educational institution of vocational training

College of Optics and Electronics

Diploma paper

«The problems of the Subjunctive Mood in English»

Krasnogorsk 2007

Федеральное агентство по образованию по образованию

Государственное образовательное учреждение среднего профессионального образования

Красногорский оптико-электронный колледж

Дипломная работа

«Проблемы сослагательного наклонения в английском языке»

Красногорск 2007



1. The Subjunctive Mood?

1.1 Foreign linguists’ speculations about the Subjunctive Mood

1.2 The Subjunctive Mood from the point of view of the representatives of the Russian linguistic school

2. The main cases of the use of the Subjunctive Mood in English

3. The use of The Subjunctive Mood in the works of English and American writers




There are many controversial and not thoroughly investigated points in the English grammar. Nevertheless, in my opinion one of the most difficult and not clear both from the point of view of its definition and description and from the point of view of its practical implementation in speech is the subject of the Subjunctive Mood. Even the name of this grammatical category seems ambiguous in term of its being approached and characterized by different outstanding linguists in our country and abroad.

No wonder this problem couldn’t but arise my curiosity and language interest. I have made up my mind to consider the material compiled on this problem in different sources to clear up the point for myself and to have a better idea about the usage of the Subjunctive Mood in speech.

I will learn more information about points of views of English and Russian grammarians. It is very interesting for me to know how English linguists understand problem of The Subjunctive Mood and what way Russian ones do it. I will also introduce the most important point of my diploma paper – the usage of the Subjunctive Mood. I want to learn in what cases we should use the Subjunctive Mood.

Thus the object of my paper is the Subjunctive Mood itself.

The subject of my diploma paper is the Subjunctive Mood in the works of foreign and Russian grammar schools as well as the main cases of the Subjunctive Mood usage.

The aim of my diploma paper is to compare different approaches to the problem of the Subjunctive Mood with the purpose of investigating the material available for me about the Subjunctive Mood from English and Russian sources.

My diploma paper consists of three chapters: in the 1st chapter I consider different approaches to the Subjunctive Mood understanding both in our country and abroad. In the 2nd chapter I present the main cases of the Subjunctive Mood use and perform the results obtained. There is a conclusion too. To write my diploma paper I used the works of the outstanding English grammarians, such as: H. Sweet, G.O. Curme, O. Jespersen and Russian scholars: V. Kaushanskaya, V. Vinogradov. You can see the names of their works in the list of literature, on page 25, and the information from Internet.

The 3d chapter represents my practical contribution into the problem of the Subjunctive Mood. In this chapter I analyze the use of the Subjunctive Mood by some English and American writers and draw the conclusion based on the material collected.

The literary sources are given as supplementary material after Bibliography.

1. The Subjunctive Mood?

1.1           Foreign linguists’ speculations about the Subjunctive Mood

As we shall further see there is no unity on the Subjunctive Mood among the world famous foreign grammarians. I would like to dwell on the views of the most outstanding linguists.

By the moods of a verb H. Sweet in his work «A new English Grammar (Part I)» understands grammatical forms expressing different relations between subject and predicate. Thus, if a language has special forms to express commands as distinguished from statements, we include the forms that express command under the term «imperative mood». Thus in English come! is in the imperative mood, while the statement he comes is in the «indicative» mood.

In English the only inflectional moods are the indicative and subjunctive. But the inflections of the English verb are so scanty that we need not be surprised to find that the distinction between indicative and subjunctive is very slight. The only regular inflection by which the subjunctive is distinguished from the indicative in English is that of the third person singular present, which drops the s of the indicative (he sees) in the subjunctive (he see). In the verb to be, however, further distinctions are made: indicative I am, he is, he was, subjunctive I be, he be, he were, although in the spoken language the only distinction that is still kept us is that between was and were. Consequently the sense of the distinction in function between subjunctive and indicative has almost died out in English, and use the subjunctive were only in combination with other mood-forms, the other subjunctive inflections surviving only in a few special phrases and constructions, such as God, save the Queen!, where the subjunctive expresses wish, being thus equivalent to the Greek optative.

The few distinction that English makes between fact-statements and thought-statements are mainly expressed, not by inflections, but by auxiliaries (periphrastic moods), and by peculiar uses of tense-distinctions. The following are the auxiliary forms:

a)                 The combination of should and would with the infinitive – the conditional mood.

b)                The combination of may and its preterite might with the infinitive is called the permissive mood.

c)                The combination of the finite forms of the verb to be with the supine is called compulsive mood.

We use tenses to express thought-statements in the hypothetical clauses of conditional sentences, as in if I knew his address I would write him; if it were possible I would do it. In the latter example the hypothesis is shown not only by the preterite tense, but also by the subjunctive inflection, which is really superfluous. When a thought-statement is expressed by a tense in this way, H. Sweet calls it a tense-mood. Were in if it were is a subjunctive tense-mood.

As we see, in some conditional sentences all three ways of expressing thought-statement are used.

G.O. Curme in the work «A Grammar of the English Language» considers moods as the changes in the form of the verb to show the various ways in which the action or state is thought of by the speaker.

There are two moods:

1.                 Indicative Mood. This form represents something as a fact, or as in close relation with reality, or in interrogative form inquires after a fact.

2.                 Subjunctive Mood. The function of the subjunctive mood is to represent something, not as an actual reality, but as formed in the mind of the speaker as a desire, wish, volition, plan, conception, thought; something with more or less hope of realization, or, in the case of a statement, with more or less belief, sometimes with little or no hope or faith.

The various meanings may be classified under two general heads – the optative subjunctive and the potential subjunctive. The optative subjunctive represents something as desired, demanded, required. The potential subjunctive marks something as a mere conception of the mind, but at the same time represents it as something that may probably be or become a reality or on the other hand as something that is contrary to fact.

H. Whitehall in the work «Structural Essentials of English» says that Mood (or mode) establishes the speaker’s or writer’s mood about the actuality of a happening. The indicative mood indicates that what he says must be regarded as a fact, i.e., as having occurred or as occurring; the so-called subjunctive mood implies that he is doubtful or uncertain about its occurrence.

Although the subjunctive is gradually dying out of the language, English is rich in devices for expressing one’s psychological moods toward happenings that are imaginary.

Our apparatus for expressing mood suggests that in the use of verb word-groups, the speaker’s or writer’s mental attitudes are of great importance.

Many grammarians enumerate the following moods in English, etc.: indicative, subjunctive, imperative, infinitive, and participle. O. Jespersen as it can be seen from «The Philosophy of Grammar» considers that infinitives and participles cannot be coordinated with the others, and we shall therefore in this chapter deal with the first three moods only. These are sometimes called fact-mood, thought-mood, and will-mood respectively. But they do not express different relations between subject and predicate. It is much more correct to say that they express certain attitudes of the mind of the speaker towards the contents of the sentence.

O. Jespersen in his work «A modern English Grammar» presents forms of the Subjunctive Mood in the table:

For expressing unreal action, simultaneous or planning action towards now

For expressing unreal action, past towards now

I. I should

he, she, it would do

we should be doing

you would be done

they would


he, she, it do

we would be doing

you be done



he, she, it do

we should be doing

you be done



he, she, it

we be, did, were




would have done

should have been doing

would have been doing


have done

would have been doing

have been doing

have done

should have been doing

have been doing

had been

had done

1.2           The Subjunctive Mood from the point of view of the representatives of the Russian linguistic school

The category of mood in the present English verb has given rise to so many discussions, and has been treated in so many different ways, that it seems hardly possible to arrive at any more or less convincing and universally acceptable conclusion concerning it. Indeed, the only points in the sphere of mood which have not so far been disputed seem to be these: there is a category of mood in Modern English; there are at least two moods in the modern English verb, one of which is the Subjunctive. These points were discussed not only by English grammarians, but Russian grammarians too.

Academician V. Vinogradov in his work «Russian Language» gave the definition of the category of mood: «Mood expresses the relation of the action to reality, as stated by the speaker.»

The relations between meaning and form will be expressed by two different series of external signs.

The first of these two points may be illustrated by sequence we should come, which means one thing in the sentence I think we should come here again tomorrow; it means another thing in the sentence if we knew that he wants us we should come to see him, and it means another thing again in the sentence How queer that we should come at the very moment when you were talking about us! In a similar way, several meanings may be found in the sequence he would come in different contexts.

The second of the two points may be illustrated by comparing the two sentences, I suggest that he go and I suggest that he should go, and we will for the present neglect the fact that the first of the two variants is more typical of American, and the second of British English.

Matters are still further complicated by two phenomena where we are faced with a choice between polysemy and homonymy. One of these concerns forms like lived, knew, etc. Such forms appear in two types of contexts, of which one may be exemplified by the sentences, He lived here five years ago, or I knew it all along, and the other by the sentences If he lived here he would come at once, or, If I knew his address I should write to him.

In sentences of the first type the form obviously is the past tense of the indicative mood. The second type admits of two interpretations: either the form lived, knew, etc. are the same forms of the past indicative that were used in the first type, but they have acquired another meaning in this particular context, or else the forms lived, knew, etc. are forms of the past indicative but are basically different.

There is another peculiar complication in the analysis of mood. The question is, what verbs are auxiliaries of Mood in Modern English? The verbs should and would are auxiliaries expressing unreality. But the question is less clear with the verb may when used in such sentences as Come closer that I may hear what you say. Is the group may hear some mood form of the verb hear, or is it a free combination of two verbs, thus belonging entirely to the field of syntax, not morphology? The same question may be asked about the verb may in such sentences as May you be happy! Where it is part of a group used to express a wish, and is perhaps a mood auxiliary. We ought to seek an objective criterion which would enable us to arrive at a convincing conclusion.

All these considerations, varied as they are, make the problem of mood in Modern English extremely difficult to solve and they seem to show in advance that no universally acceptable solution can be hoped for in a near future. Those proposed so far have been extremely unlike each other. Owning to the difference of approach to moods, grammarians have been vacillating between two extremes – 3 moods (indicative, subjunctive and imperative), put forward by many grammarians, and 16 moods, as proposed by M. Deutschbein. Between these extremes there are intermediate views, such as that of Prof. A. Smirnitsky, who proposed a system of 6 moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive I, subjunctive II, suppositional, and conditional), and who was followed in this respect by M. Ganshina and N. Vasilevskaya.

If we look through the meaning of the mood forms, we obtain the following headings:


Means of expression

Inducement (order, request, prayer, and the like)

Possibility (action thought of as conditionally possible, or as purpose of another action, etc.)

Unreal condition

Consequence of unreal condition

come (!) (no ending, no auxiliary, and usually without subject, 2nd person only)

(he) come (no ending, no auxiliary)

Should come (should for all persons)

may come (?)

came, had come (same as past or past perfect indicative), used in subordinate clauses

should come (1st person)

would come (2nd and 3rd person)

We would thus get either four moods, or three moods, or two moods. The choice between these variants will remain arbitrary and is unlikely ever to be determined by means of any objective data.

If, on the other hand, we start from the means of expressing moods we are likely to get something like this system:


Means of expression



Unreal condition

Unlikely condition

Consequence of unreal condition

Wish or purpose

come (!) (no ending, no auxiliary, and usually without subject)

(he) come (no ending in any persons, no auxiliary)

came, had come

Should come (for all persons)

should come (1st person)

would come (2nd and 3rd person)

may come (?)

In this way we should obtain different system, comprising six moods, with the following meanings:

1.                 Inducement

2.                 Possibility

3.                 Unreal condition

4.                 Unlikely condition

5.                 Consequence of unreal condition

6.                 Wish or purpose

A similar problem concerns the groups «should + infinitive» and «would + infinitive». Two views are possible here. If we have decided to avoid homonymy as far as possible, we will say that a group of this type is basically a tense (the future-in-the-past), which under certain specified conditions may express an unreal action – the consequence of an unfulfilled condition.

If we endorse one of the views, that is, if we take the temporal and the modal groups «should (would) + infinitive» to be homonyms, the patterns themselves will not change. The change will affect the headings. We shall have to say, in that case, that the patterns serve to distinguish between two basically different forms sounding alike. Again, just as in the case of lived and knew, this will be a matter of interpreting facts, rather than of the facts as such.

To sum up the whole discussion about categories of the verb found in conditional sentences, the simplest view, and the one to be preferred is that we have here forms of the indicative mood in a special use. Another view is that we have here forms of special moods, and that they are distinguished from each other according to the category of correlation.

2. The main cases of the use of The Subjunctive Mood in English

1.                 Simple sentences

In simple sentences the synthetic forms of the Subjunctive Mood are more frequent than the analytical forms.

In simple sentences the Subjunctive Mood is used:

·        To express wish:

e.g. Success attend you!

·        To express wish the analytical subjunctive with the mood auxiliary may is also used.

e.g. May you live long and die happy!

·        To express an unreal wish:

e.g. If only he were free!

·        In oaths and imprecations:

e.g. Manners be hanged!

·        In some expressions:

e.g. Be it so!

God forbid!

The Subjunctive Mood in simple sentences is characteristic of literary style, except in oaths and imprecations, which belong to low colloquial style.

2.                 Complex sentences

·                    The Subjunctive Mood is used in conditional sentences to

express an unreal condition (in the subordinate clause) and an unreal consequence (in the principal clause).

In sentences of unreal condition referring to the present of future the past Subjunctive of the verb to be is used in the subordinate clause; with other verbs the same meaning is expressed by the Past Infinitive of the Indicative Mood. In the principal clause we find the analytical subjunctive consisting of the mood auxiliary should or would and the Indefinite Infinitive. Should is used with the first person singular and plural, would is used with the second and third person singular and plural.

e.g. The world would be healthier if every chemist’s shop in England were demolished.

An unreal condition referring to the future can also be expressed by the Past Subjunctive of the verb to be + to – Infinitive of the notional verb or the analytical Subjunctive with the mood auxiliary should for all the persons. Such sentences are often translated by means of «Если бы случилось так…», «Случилось так…»

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