This week’s grammar lesson deals with an error I hear all the time. And it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me.
We’re going to talk about the subjunctive.
If you’ve taken Spanish classes, this might sound like a scary topic. But it’s not. I promise.
So … What is it?
In grammar parlance, the subjunctive is not a verb tense, such as the present or past tense.
Rather, the subjunctive is a mood. It is used in a hypothetical situation or with a demand or an emotion.
USAGE – Hypotheticals
If you want to sound smarter, master the use of the subjunctive with hypothetical situations. This will eliminate the vast majority of opportunities for error.
The first example below involves a hypothetical situation: being taller. It’s hypothetical because I cannot instantly grow tall enough to reach the clothes on the top shelf of the closet.
If I was taller, I could reach the off-season clothes stored on the top shelf of the closet.
If I were taller, I could reach the off-season clothes stored on the top shelf of the closet.
If the weather was nicer, we could go for a walk in the park.
If the weather were nicer, we could go for a walk in the park.
To formulate the subjunctive, take the third person plural (they) of the simple past.
For the verb “to be,” use (they) “were.”
See how easy that was?
USAGE – Demands
This one sounds a little funny and takes getting used to, but knowing how to formulate the subjunctive with demands will keep grammar snobs at bay.
Certain verbs expressing a demand of sorts will alert you to the need to use the subjunctive.
Bells and whistles should go off whenever you see a verb used in commands and suggestions, including (but not limited to): demand, require, mandate, insist, suggest, request, propose, prefer.
Mom required that my brother is home before 6:00 pm.
Mom required that my brother be home before 6:00 pm.
The teacher insists that her class goes to the school library weekly.
The teacher insists that her class go to the school library weekly.
If you want to construct a sentence like one of the examples above, it’s the second verb—the one that is on the receiving end of the command or suggestion—that we need to watch out for.
Don’t normally conjugate that second verb:
my brother is
her class goes
Instead, simply take the infinitive: to be, to go, and drop “to”:
that my brother be
that her class go
USAGE – Emotions
This one is pretty simple. To emphasize the uncertainty or hypothetical nature expressed by certain verbs, such as wish, hope, desire, and others, use the subjunctive.
In the first example below, we use the subjunctive to demonstrate the unreal or uncertain nature of the wish.
Many people in retail say they wish that people are more polite during the holiday season.
Many people in retail say they wish that people were more polite during the holiday season.
* The above example is similar to the hypothetical use of the subjunctive. Here, the store employees are wishing for something unreal that doesn’t exist today.
* To formulate the subjunctive in this example. take the third person plural of the simple past. In the case of the verb “to be”: (they) were.
The basketball team hopes that the referee officiates impartially.
The basketball team hopes that the referee officiate impartially.
* To formulate the subjunctive in this example, simply use the third person plural of the simple present.
In the case of the verb “to officiate”: (they) officiate.
BUT WAIT … THERE’S MORE!
The subjunctive gets a little complicated because it can be used in different tenses.
For now, let’s focus on getting the examples in this post right.
IS IMPROVING YOUR GRAMMAR REALLY WORTH IT?
If you’re wondering if it’s worth the effort to read these short grammar lessons, let me ask you this: Have you read the Huffington Post article by @Yashar: “Steve Mnuchin’s Wife Has a ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ Moment On Instagram,” about Louise Linton behaving badly?
To recap, she tagged designers of expensive clothing brands on a now deleted Instagram post documenting an official trip. One Instagrammer replied, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable.”
In her response, Linton tried to belittle others by flaunting her wealth and poking fun at their modest lifestyles. Here’s an excerpt:
“…Aw!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? … I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day “trip” than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours. You’re adorably out of touch. Thanks for the passive aggressive nasty comment. …”
But do you know what? Her lashing out backfired. And not just because she chose to taunt someone for their lower socio-economic status.
She not only sounded really nasty, but also she also sounded really dumb because, apparently, doesn’t know how to use the subjunctive.
After today’s grammar gold, your grammar is better than hers! Her poor grammar made her sound dumb. Hopefully, that helps you to deal with negativity like this.
One more example of why good grammar counts!
Your fairy godmother of grammar
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