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Condition and Subjunctive Moods

VerbsWHAT IS A VERB "MOOD"?

While verb tense is a matter of time and duration, action can also occur under the influence of moods. Moods can be expressed logically (as in a deductive pattern) or rhetorically (as in a speculative or insistent tone). Depending on the mood, verb forms can be altered either by the addition of an auxiliary verb, or by removal of conjugation altogether.
The primary moods discussed on this page are the conditional and the subjunctive.

Conditionals

A conditional verb form is used when the writer expresses an action or an idea that is dependent on a condition or premise—on something imagined or speculated in the present, past or future. It comes in two varieties, "real" or “unreal."

REAL CONDITIONS

Real conditions are expressed as an "if . . . then" statement when the actual circumstances for them are real or possible. They're about identifying real opportunities. The simplest way to test whether a condition is real is to substitute "if" with "when."

Present Real Conditional
When or if this condition is met, then this result occurs (or is occurring).

Example:

If [or When] I have money, I travel.

(Translation:I don't always have the means, but when I do, I travel.)

Past Real Conditional
When or if this condition was met, then this result occurred.

Example:

If [or When] I had the time on weekends, I worked on my novel.
(Translation:Sometimes I did have the time, so I worked on my novel.)

Future Real Conditional

When or if this condition will be met, then this result will occur.

Example:

If [or When] I marry one day, I'm going to be a more patient mate than my parents.
(Translation:Sometime in the future I am likely to marry, so at that time I will become a better mate.)

UNREAL CONDITIONS

Unreal conditions are expressed as an "if only . . . then" statement when the actual circumstances for them are fantasy or can not occur. In other words, they're about recognizing missed or unlikely opportunities. The simplest way to test for an unreal condition is to use the word only with it, but also listen for any mood of “could-a, would-a, should-a”: there's often a wistful tone of “lost chances” in unreal conditionals.

Present Unreal Conditional
If only this condition can or could be met right now, then this result would occur [or would be occurring].

Example:

If only I could stand to travel, I might enjoy visiting a foreign country.
(Translation: I can't really tolerate travel, so I'm not going to visit a foreign country.)

Past Unreal Conditional
If only this condition had been met in the past, then this result would have occurred [or would have been occurring].

Example:

If I had not worked on weekends, then I would have written my novel.
(Translation: never really didn't work on weekends, so I never really had time to write my novel.)

Future Unreal Conditional
If only this condition could be met one day, then this might have been the result.

Example:

If could just one day be rich, I should be a great humanitarian.
(Translation: I'm probably not really going to rich, but if such a thing were possible, I
know I would become a great philanthropist.)

Subjunctive Mood

The word “subjunctive” derives from the Latin subjungere,meaning “to bring under,” or “to subjugate.” The best way to think of the subjunctive mood, then, is that it's very moody: it has a buried subtext—an underlying mood of insistence—expressed in the manner that passive-aggressive people often use. The subjunctive mood is used in dependent clauses that do the following:

  1. express wishful thinking;
  2. begin with "If "and express a condition that does not exist (is contrary to fact);
  3. begin with "as if" or "as though" when such clauses describe a speculation or condition contrary to fact; and
  4. begin with "that" and express a demand, requirement, request, or suggestion.
Not Expressed As a Condition

The subjunctive often sounds just like a conditional, but it does not use a conditional auxiliary verb. In fact, you'll know it's subjunctive when it seems to use a verb form ungrammatically. It's described, not as a condition, but rather as a mood: conditions are logically deductive, which is why conditional verbs occur in “if (when)…then” statements; moods are rhetorical and implied. The subjunctive mood implies either a speculation or an insistent expectation. Compare:

Conditional (Not Subjunctive)

We would have passed the exam if we had studied harder. Next time, if our study group gets together again, it should actually prepare for the exam instead of playing cards.

This example translates, “If only we had studied harder, then, gosh darn-it, I'm certain we would have passed.” It uses an implied “if only…then” statement and a Past Unreal Conditional verb string containing the wistful tone of a missed opportunity: “we would have passed….”

Subjunctive Mood
Were we to have studied harder, we might have passed the exam. Next time, it's important that our study group actually prepare for the exam instead of playing cards.

This example uses an irregular verb form (with no auxiliary verb). The first sentence is a speculative statement, that could be written, “One could speculate that, were we to have studied harder…,” and the second sentence is an insistent request: it's strongly recommended we prepare next time.

In the two sentences of the Subjunctive example, the verbs don't use the normal tense nor pose overt conditions, the way they do in the Conditional example. You wouldn't normally write “our study group prepare for the test”; in ordinary verb tense, “prepare” needs a present, past, or future tense ending of some sort, and in conditional verbs, you need an “if” or “when” to frame the condition logically. That isn't the case here. These statements subjunctively express two kinds of moods: speculations and demands.

A SPECULATIVE STATEMENT

Speculations are guesses or imaginings. When expressed in the subjective mood, they
use "were" regardless of the number of the subject, and

  1. expresses wishful thinking, or,
  2. expresses an imagined condition or comparison with "if," "as if," or "as though.”

Examples
If Juan were more aggressive, he'd be a better hockey player.
Juan never was more aggressive, so speculating what it would be like if he had been is simply contrary to fact.

She wishes her boyfriend were here.

Her boyfriend isn't here, so this is merely a mood of wishful thinking. Note, too, that saying, “She wishes her boyfriend was here,” means she hopes her boyfriend already arrived earlier then left—which wouldn't be consistent with the speculative mood of the statement.

He acted as if he were guilty.

Regardless of the truth of the matter, he is not guilty, so this is just fanciful supposition. Once again, if “was” had been used instead of “were,” the sentence would literally mean he was guilty in the past at some point, and is now acting just like he did then when he was guilty—which isn't what the sentence really wants to communicate.

If were seven feet tall, I'd be a great basketball player.

If wishes were nickels, right? No one is actually wondering if the speaker of this statement had been actually seven feet tall. If so, then this would be an unreal conditional statement (i.e., “If only I had been seven feet tall, I would have been a great basketball player”).

Clarence practices the violin as though his life were dependent on it.

One's life depending on how playing the violin well is an exaggeration, or, at best, the stuff of gangster movies. If it did happen to Clarence at some point in the past, then perhaps we could write “as though his life was dependent on it.”

A REQUEST OR A DEMAND

The simplest way to understand subjunctive requests and demands is that they are declarative versions of imperative sentences. (See “Sentence Types” for more information.) However, they start with "that" and use "be" or the base form of the verb (no verb ending).

Examples
requested that he be present at the hearing.
The mood of this “request” sounds more insistent, hence “be,” not “was,” is appropriate.

He recommended that his pupil attend the workshop.
In ordinary circumstances, “pupil attend” would be a subject-verb agreement error. However, the word “recommended” suggests that his pupil was passive-aggressively commanded to attend the workshop, so the subjunctive mood is appropriate.

She suggested that we be on time tomorrow.
“Suggested” is used ironically in place of “warned”; in order words,“Bon time, or be fired!”

Many countries insist that a newly naturalized citizen renounce all previous citizenship.
That insistence is, in fact, a requirement, not merely a conditional option, so the subjunctive mood of “citizen renounce” is preferred. Note, too, that if this were a normal verb tense, proper subject-verb agreement would require the verb to conjugate differently: “citizen renounces.” Remember, in the subjunctive mood the verb that make the least sense is the verb that takes no tense.
Last Updated: 06/17/2015
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