Thursday, May 10, 2018

Grammar: The Subjunctive

You'll find all types of explanations of the subjunctive in books and on websites that have probably more erudite scholars working on grammatical issues than I, however, I tend to simplify grammar to its lowest common denominator so that students don't decide to power off the minute they hear me say the word "grammar" during a lesson. 

So if it's scholarly, linguistic, super duper comprehensive explanations you're after, please refer to other sites that champion top-notch academics who will tackle grammatical structures the way they're meant to be tackled. As for me, I'm here to teach the basics so that if you're trying to learn grammar to pass an English examination or basically to understand what a grammatical phenomenon is, how it's used and when it's used, you can do so without too many gaps in understanding.

The subjunctive is a grammatical structure (to be more precise it is a mood, not a tense) which denotes more advanced familiarity with the English language when used. It is not surprising that if someone is preparing to take a C2 exam to prove their level of English (for instance IELTS, CPE, CELP, ECPE, ESB, LRN), teachers will stress this grammatical concept and encourage candidates to use it selectively in writing and speaking. 

It is primarily considered more common in American English, as the British prefer to use "should" in a sentence instead, but it's obviously not as if it's unheard of on the European side of the Atlantic.

What is the subjunctive?

The subjunctive is used to express a certain amount of urgency or stronger emotion after certain verbs or phrases. I'll summarize the most important of these that tend to appear in students' grammar books though the more you read, the more you find other instances of such words and phrases which haven't been formally listed.

Verbs followed by subjunctive
Adjective phrases followed by  subjunctive
Nouns followed by subjunctive




How is it formed?

After the words outlined in the table above, you have a new subject in the sentence and the verb that follows is in the bare infinitive (in its basic form without any endings or helping verbs in front). Note that a verb that introduces the subjunctive can be placed in any tense needed.

(subjunctive word)  +  new subject  +  bare infinitive

Let's look at some examples.
  1. bold words are the subjunctive words
  2. underlined words are the new subject
  3. in italics we see the verb in bare infinitive

Verbs followed by the subjunctive:
  • I would advise you be more careful next time.
  • Janet insisted Sarah do all the work before midday.
  • Our teacher has requested he come on time from now on.

Adjectives followed by the subjunctive:
  • It is imperative that all students comply with teachers' requests. 
  • It is preferable he take the bus to work this morning.
  • Jack was eager his wife drive the kids to school earlier than usual. 
Nouns followed by the subjunctive:
  • The idea was that he send the letter to Mr. Jones before anyone else got to his manager to spill the beans.
  • It is the recommendation of this panel that an individual caught plagiarizing be expelled from this institution.
  • During the parent-teacher conference last Monday, a suggestion was put forward that all assignments be sent to teachers via email on pre-announced due dates.
Passive and Continuous Forms
Pay attention to the fact that in the last two examples, "be expelled" and "be sent" are passive forms. 
It is also possible to have verbs in the subjunctive which are continuous:
  • It is essential that you be waiting here for me at 2 pm sharp.
  • She requested that I be standing at the corner of 5th and 49th Street the following day.


The negative form of a verb in the subjunctive precedes the bare infinitive verb.
  • She requested that I not be standing at the corner.
  • It is preferable he not take the bus to work.
  • Janet insisted Sarah not do all her exercises.
Remember, you can use "should" instead of the subjunctive, which is more common in British English. For example
  • During the parent-teacher conference last Monday, a suggestion was put forward that all assignments should be sent to teachers via email.
  • Janet insisted Sarah should do all the work before midday.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments section below.

Don't forget to check out the list of grammar points you need to be familiar with before taking a B2-level test and a C2-level test.

Find more grammar help here.

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