Many English speakers, including English professors, think English has no subjunctive left except in the phrase, "If I were..." As English endings eroded during Middle English, the subjunctive endings also eroded. Whoa! I can hear you saying, "What are you talking about? What's a subjunctive?" If you are conscious of them at all, you recall them with horror from when you studied French, German, Latin, or some other European language. Your language teacher probably told you there are no English counterparts to the subjunctive, which is why you might not understand them in another language.
Since the subjunctive expresses the idea that what the speaker is saying is not necessarily true, or won't necessarily happen, obviously English can express the subjunctive. The phrase, "If I were you..." is subjunctive, because it is impossible for me to be you. The subjunctive lies in the use of were instead of the expected was. That is, substituting the plural verb form for the singular, is a way of expressing the subjunctive. We also see this in
- The teacher prefers that John flunk the test
- My mother commanded that Jake come immediately
- I asked that my lover call me every night, but he didn't.
- I wish that she were here
The problem with this subjunctive form is that English no longer has a singular and plural form of verbs (except for is, are, was, were) except in the 3d person present tense, so if you are speaking in the 1st or 2nd person, or in the past, you can't indicate the subjunctive by using a plural verb for a singular. That is, we have singular and plural agreement only in instances like
- Jake comes/Jake and Max come
- My lover calls/ My lovers call
- I prefer that you be on time
- The General commanded that the troops be ready at once.
- I only ask that you be truthful
- I insist that my lover be faithful
- Praise be the Lord
- If this be treason, then so be it
Why don't people realize that these subjunctives still exist? My students were always surprised when I pointed them out because they instantly recognized that they used them. People are quite unaware of what grammar they're using when they speak. They select grammar forms unconsciously as they're planning what they're going to say.
As for the pesky European subjunctives, you should know that, most often, where there used to be a subjunctive in older English, it was replaced by to+ verb in modern English and/or by the modal auxiliaries like should, would, might. These were always used in the Germanic* languages to express the subjunctive message that what is being stated is not necessarily a fact, so they simply continued to be used when the subjunctive forms eroded. Hence, we get to forms and modals as subunctives:
- My mother ordered Jake to clean his room
- Miss Roberts preferred us to flunk her exams
- I asked my lover to call
- My husband asked if I would make lentil soup
Please comment on this post, favorably or not. The next post is on what makes poetry poetic
*English is a Germanic language. It developed from *Proto Germanic which,over the centuries, turned into German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Yiddish.