I was reading The Copyeditor’s Handbook this evening.  (You don’t spend Saturday night studying grammar and English usage?  Try it sometime with a glass of sangria.  Trust me on this.)  Suddenly, a question struck me: what the hell does subjunctive mean? 

Do you know?  Does anyone know?  Are you embarrassed that you don’t know?  Did I spell embarrassed right?

Merriam Webster tried to help me.  Subjunctive: of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire).

Okay.  What?

To make matters worse, subjunctive is not just another tense but a mood of a verb.  Verbs have moods?  Will they be throwing tantrums next?  Drowning their sorrows in sangria?  Maybe a verb will just get up and walk out in a huff.  Some verbs would do that.  Stink, for example.  Isn’t that just the kind of verb that would stomp away mad?

I turned to The Gregg next.  Subjunctive: Used in dependent clauses following main clauses expressing necessity, demand, or wishing; also used in if, as if, and as though clauses that state conditions which are improbable, doubtful, or contrary to fact. 

Aha!  If you are demanding, wishing, or contradicting fact, you must subjunct. (No, subjunct is not a word.  I made it up.  Don’t tell Mr. Webster, or even Mr. Merriam.)

I wish I were on the train to Paris.

It is imperative that I be sent to Paris for the conference.


I insist that she refuse the ticket to Paris.  I want it!

I would also subjunct if I were to use an if clause.

If I were a rich man…da di da di da di da di da di da di da di di…

Got that, everybody?  No?  Let me make it simpler.

Subjunctive: a weird form of a verb that you wouldn’t normally use (like I were or she refuse), used because you are in a demanding or wishing or contradicting mood. 

In which case perhaps you ought to have a little more sangria and choose a normal verb.  Just sayin’.


12 thoughts on “SUBJUNCT THIS

  1. As in I demand prizes for sitting through all these language lessons, and not just more bunny pics?  Wait.  That’s dierect first person.  Damn those bunny pics throw me off all the time…

  2. Yeah, I’d rather use it to describe a room that’s the opposite of an attic. Subjunct room sounds funner than it’s actual meaning. (Just kidding)   This was a good one. It also reminded me of why I hated this kind of thing when it came up in English class 40 years ago. 

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the above, enjoying immensely the discussion of one of my favorite topics, and basically my site’s main theme, to tell the truth.Couldn’t help exploring what we use here in hebrew for the above examples. I sorely miss saying ‘If I were a teacher”. But we manage. “A’la’vie, ve’hai’i’ti mor’eh” translates as ‘Oy, I’d be so happy if I was a teacher’, and is the common saying. 

  4. I just hope your fellow Grammer  Police won’t arrest me for not having a properly worded ticket on my train to Paris.   If so, I might be tempted to tell them to sub stuff it.

  5. I love it! I was weird and back in the day I got   into grammar with a vengeanceIt reminded me of factorinf polynominals..You would not know it looking at how I mangle sentences these days but I have not been a disciplined writer for eons..I think of terms like” gerund” or” subjunctive” (quotes here????    as being useful  for  explaining in  dry jargon how   thought process  is encoded in English  .Grammar is frustrating  for people   because like math operations  and symbols it adds all kind of  dos and don’ts which  annoy when the person writing or calculating  has intuitively used a thought process  which is wonderful and some punctuation mishap  detracts appreciation for that  by what has correctly been referred to by the grammar police(instructors or busy body spouses ).Most of us when reading good writing forgive misued ellipses and such ,…….even run on sentences  can be tolerated… I love how you described the term.Very cool ,and I relearned something I had forgotten.I could never ever adequately edit anything I wrote for grammar…ever……………:)

  6. We have now entered the realm of grammar which has always seemed too esoteric for me to bother learning it.  These are the rules I circumvent or attempt to find my way through by feel and instinct.  It’s like that Thai place my husband really loves.  Neither of us knows the name of the street where it is located…instead we say things like, “you know, that place in the shadow of the convention center,” or “the restaurant kind of to the northeast near the river but not ON the river.”  That’s how I think of the subjunctive.  IF I think about it.  Have I ever thought about it?  Probably not.

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