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Early Middle English for today

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Subjunctive mood

This is a term that a lot of English speakers aren't familiar with. But it exists in Modern English.

Consider the case of a condemned prisoner awaiting sentencing in a fictional state. The writer of a short summary of the process as it applies in that state, might say "If found guity of murder, a prisoner is incarcerated for the term of his or her natural life." The judge however, when bringing down a particular sentence would say "I order that the prisoner be incarcerated for the term of his natural life." Notice the difference there: "is incarcerated" versus "be incarcerated". That "be" is subjunctive.

That's an example of the subjunctive in use. But what does it mean and when do we use it? The short answer is - hypotheticals. A judge can't order that a prisoner is incarcerated, because that isn't happening. Not yet. It's about to happen and although it probably will, there is an element of doubt. The governor may intervene. An appeal may be sucessfully lodged. Or the prisoner may be freed in a political coup. That hypothetical aspect is even stronger with verbs like "recommend" and "suggest" and "wish". So we get "I recommend that this school be given an additional three classroom teachers", as opposed to a statement of fact: "In this district, each school is given...".

The subjunctive has another aspect - desire. The speaker desires something - an action, a state or set of circumstances, that doesn't yet exist. That desire can have various grades of intensity. It may be wistful - "I wish", or it may be gentle - "I suggest", or a little more forceful - "I recommend" or "I insist" or it may have some official sanction - "I order". And it each case, the verb of desire is followed by "that", then a noun (or pronoun) and then another verb. It is this second verb that is in the subjunctive mood. Examples are: "I wish that you were here", "I insist that she put that metro station further east".

Generally the subjunctive affects the third person form of a verb - the form that ends in 's'. That 's' is dropped in the subjunctive, to give: "I suggest he take a step back" as opposed to "He takes a step back each time". The latter is called the indicative mood, and is of course, the mood we most commonly use. It's the mood of the forms listed in the first table on the previous page. There is no difference in form between the subjunctive and indicative in the 1st or 2nd person or the plural, in Modern English. Compare, for example: "He suggests I take a step back" and "I take a step back each time".

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