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Chapter 5 - Subjunctive Mood

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“If I was you, I’d learn the subjunctive mood.”

In this chapter, you’ll find that even best-selling novelists have trouble with the subjunctive mood. It pays to know the meaning of mood and to use the various moods—especially the subjunctive—correctly.

Subjunctive Mood of Verbs

Some very smart people out there tie themselves up in what amounts to a grammatical sheepshank when they use the little word if and then follow it with the verb to be. For some reason, they think that an if always requires an ensuing were.

Check out the incorrect words penned by the author of runaway bestsellers (correct words appear in brackets):

Kelly regarded Tracy in an attempt to interpret her comment. Kelly couldn’t quite decide if it were [was] meant to be disdainful or merely informative. Robin Cook, Toxin, p. 16 (Berkely Books, 1999).

Mrs. Turner answered just as Kim opened the car door. Without any pleasantries, he asked if George were [was] available. Toxin, p. 110.

Now he wanted to find her with even more urgency than earlier, and if she were [was] indeed injured, he wanted to find the individual responsible. Toxin, p. 277.

Every now and then, the author gets it right:

He paused at the waiting-room threshold to see if Tracy was there. Toxin, p. 169.

Myth - The Word If Requires the Word Were

Let’s first dispense with a myth and then recall a bit of grammar: When you use the word if, you do not always follow it with a were—the subjunctive construction of the verb to be. You use were only when you need to form what’s called the subjunctive mood. Now for a bit of grammar.

When we speak or write, we have to use verb forms in every complete sentence. Those verbs ordinarily appear in what’s called the indicative mood. That is, we conjugate verbs to show tense or time, as in present, past, future, and so on. In the indicative mood, we indicate the way things are, the way things were, or the way things will be. Or we indicate what things do, or did, or will do.

Other moods include the imperative mood (using the second-person verb form, usually without the you, to give a command, e.g., Write the report), and the interrogative mood (putting the auxiliary verb before the subject to ask a question, e.g., Will he win?).

 

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