Wishful thinking

On using the subjunctive

Many people make New Year’s resolutions to start diets, saying, “I wish I were thinner.” Six weeks later, many are saying, “I wish I had stuck with my diet.”

Both are wishes, but they don’t use the same verb tense. The New Year’s expression of desire is a “subjunctive” wish, while the expression of regret is a “past perfect” wish. If you hate grammar, you can think of the two verb tenses this way: One expresses a desire or condition that is difficult or impossible to achieve, while the other is an expression of something that did not happen.

Many of you may remember the “subjunctive” tense only as a bad dream from English class. Many of you may be thinking, “I would have said “I wish I was thinner. ‘Were’ sounds so snooty.” And some may be thinking, “I thought that was the conditional tense.”

And you would all be correct, and incorrect, to an extent.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the subjunctive as a verb “that refers to an action or state as conceived (rather than as a fact) and is therefore used chiefly to express a wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical, or prospective event.”Garner’s Modern American Usage lists those uses in a different way: “(1) conditions contrary to fact”; “(2) suppositions”; “(3) wishes”; “(4) demands and commands”; “(5) suggestions and proposals”; and “(6) statements of necessity.” Garner’s says that, even as subjunctives are less common, used mostly for “suppositions and wishes,” the other uses are “worth keeping.”

The Grammarphobia blog, by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, lists just three common uses:

1) To express a wish: “I wish I were thinner.” [Not: “I wish I was thinner.”]

(2) To express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If I were a rich man …” [Not: “If I was a rich man …”]

(3) To express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “I suggest he find a job.” [Not: “I suggest he finds a job.”]

The major stylebooks vary as well.The Associated Press Stylebook wants the subjunctive “for contrary-to-fact conditions, and expressions of doubts, wishes or regrets,” and “if there is little likelihood that a contingency might come true.” (Such as in “If we were to learn to use the subjunctive mood, we would be better communicators.”) Even as The Chicago Manual of Stylenotes the decline, it says the subjunctive “is useful when you want to express an action or state not as a reality but as a mental conception. Typically the subjunctive expresses an action or state as doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional, hypothetical, or otherwise contrary to fact.” The New York Times defends the subjunctive, even as its style maven laments, in multiple blog postings, how difficult it is to get right.

Nearly everyone agrees that “ain’t gonna happen” conditions need the subjunctive (“it would be a miracle if I were to learn the subjunctive”), and that it lives in many idioms, among them “be that as it may” (not “is” or “might be”); “the powers that be” (not “are”); and “long live the queen” (not “lives”). Did you even recognize those as subjunctive verbs? Probably not.

The good news is that the subjunctive has been in hospice for so long that most people won’t notice if you were to forget to use it. (That “were” is really conditional tense, where something has to happen for the other thing to be true: If you forgot, hardly anyone would notice.) The first edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, in 1926, says that the subjunctive is so disputed and difficult to master that that “it probably never would have been possible to draw up a satisfactory table of the English subjunctive uses,” and that “assuredly no-one will ever find it either possible or worth while to do so now that the subjunctive is dying.” One place it survived, even then, was “in pretentious journalism, infecting their contents with dullness.”


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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.