Correctness (17)

In het rijtje “vergeten groenten”, “vergeten steden” (en weet ik wat er allemaal niet is
vergeten, de laatste tijd) nu ook het rijtje “vergeten werkwoordswijzen”; de subjunctief, of de aanvoegende wijs. Bijna vergeten in het Nederlands, maar in het Engels (en met name in het Legal English) nog vaak gebruikt!

Those of you who speak French, Spanish or Italian might be familiar with an area of
grammar called ‘the subjunctive’. Examples of the subjunctive include:

  • If I were you … Why don’t we say ‘If I was you’?
  • God save the King/Queen. Why don’t we say ‘God saves …’?
  • I suggest that he be admitted. Why don’t we say ‘I suggest that he is admitted’?

In language, verbs are used in contexts known as moods. The subjunctive, along with the indicative and imperative, is one such mood. The subjunctive in English is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. These include statements about one’s state of mind, such as opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire. The subjunctive mood is also used for statements that are contrary to fact, such as If I were a boy…as
distinguished from If I was a boy.

The subjunctive is formed with the infinitive (e.g. to be) form of the verb without the ‘to’ (e.g. be). The subjunctive is only noticeable in certain forms and tenses i.e. you would not notice it in the following: it is crucial that you sign the contract today. However, you would notice it in the following: it is crucial that he sign the contract today OR it is crucial that he be informed immediately.

The easiest way to master the subjunctive is to know after which verbs and expressions we use it. For example, we use the subjunctive after the verbs ‘advise’, ‘suggest’ and ‘recommend’:

  • We recommend that Mr Jones    sign    the contract today.
  • We advise  that the client    be    cautioned.
  • We suggest that Company X    reconsider    the offer.

Other verbs followed by the subjunctive :
to ask (that); to command (that); to demand (that); to desire (that); to insist (that);
to propose (that); to request (that); to urge (that).

 Expressions followed by the subjunctive:
It is best (that); it is crucial (that); it is desirable (that); it is essential (that); it is imperative (that); it is important (that); it is recommended (that); it is urgent (that); it is vital (that); it is a good idea (that); it is a bad idea (that).

The subjunctive with ‘if’ clauses
We use the subjunctive with ‘if’ clauses that are contrary to fact; for example:

  • If I were you, I would reconsider their proposal. (I am not you)
  • If my grandmother were still alive, she would have something to say about this. (She died)
  • If the CEO were in the office today, everyone would be nervous. (He is not in
    the office)

The verb you would have expected in the above sentences is ‘was’, but this would be
incorrect. It is important to point out that although most educated native speakers would use ‘were’ in the above sentences, ‘was’ is commonly heard; particularly by non-native speakers. Because English is an evolving language, ‘was’ is becoming more acceptable – but we’re not quite there yet for ‘was’ to be accepted in formal contexts.

Many language experts insist that the subjunctive in English is a dying form which might be the case. However, it is very common in formal writing; particularly legal writing.

If you feel like practicing with the subjunctive, please click here (it’s free). But remember that completing an exercise is always much easier than “the real thing”.