Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Using (Or, Preferably, Not Using) the Subjunctive Mode in English

If you've studied a Romance language like Spanish or French, you've probably bumped up against something called the subjunctive mode.

This tense isn't common in English, but it does exist.

It is important that Daniel study.

Note that it's not "it is important that Daniel studies." The verb study at first glance seems to be conjugated incorrectly. But because the sentence is a statement of opinion, it's grammatically correct as written.

In Spanish, the form is nearly identical:

Es importante que Daniel estudie.

Normally, "Daniel" would take the indicative mode of estudiar, or estudia. But in this case, the subjunctive form estudie is used.

You'll want to use the subjunctive after any of the following phrases:

It is recommended that
It is a good idea/bad idea that
It is urgent that
It is suggested that
It is desirable that

The statement of opinion is the clue that the subjunctive mode is required.

Why am I talking about this? Because this is another perfect example of the type of stuffy, over-formalized English that is gradually dying off in the modern era. Consider these two sentences:

It is urgent that he drink.
It is urgent that he drinks.

The first sentence uses the subjunctive mode and is grammatically correct. It also sounds odd to a modern reader. The second sentence is arguably grammatically incorrect (although I'm betting in another 10-20 years we will all think otherwise), but it sounds perfectly normal.

Unless you're writing a Victorian-era novel, I suggest you use the second form.