Julia Maurus goes on a grammatical journey to irrealis and back.

Were it not for the subjunctive, it would be difficult to tell between statements of fact and fantasy, speculation, conditional statements and mere possibility. Just now, you may have noticed that I used the word ‘were’ to present a hypothetical world in which English grammar lacked a subjunctive ‘irrealis mood’.

The subjunctive presents something envisioned or conditional (uncertain) and is often introduced by ‘if’ or ‘should’. Consider this example:

If he had reduced his water use during the drought, he might have saved a lot of money. If he were to cut his water use now, he would still save money.

(Note: ‘might have’ in the first sentence expresses a possibility that no longer exists. Using ‘may have’ instead would indicate that the writer isn’t sure whether or not it would have saved him money.)

Another example:

Should this reservoir become contaminated [Were this reservoir to become contaminated], we would have no alternative source of potable water.

The Australian Government’s Style Manual has the following to say on using the subjunctive ‘were’:

in many situations it is difficult to ascertain just how hypothetical the proposition is, and the conjunction if makes it clear that the proposition is conditional. In Australian English the were subjunctive is falling into disuse, replaced by was for ordinary purposes. This then makes the were subjunctive a distinctly formal choice in terms of style.

To me, this raises two important points. Firstly, if you are writing or speaking in a formal or professional setting, it is conventional to use the subjunctive in its proper place, and by failing to use it you risk your readers or listeners considering you ignorant or overly casual.

Secondly, as contributors to Wikipedia explain, ‘Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred.’ In other words, there is a lot more to the subjunctive mood than the word ‘were’.

For these reasons, it is worth knowing how to apply the subjunctive. It is a useful device that makes it clear to the reader or listener that you are entering the realm of speculation.

As someone who considers the subjunctive proper and elegant, it annoys me to read something like this:

Recommendation 3 13

The committee recommends the Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning clarifies in his second reading speech that the intent of the provisions in the Bill are not to exclude financing costs from being recouped by an infrastructure expenses recoupment charge.

The Committee here recommends that the Deputy Premier ‘clarifies’ something. This is illogical, because the grammatical difference between present tense and subjunctive mood is to tell us that the Deputy Premier either ‘does’ something (currently) or that in the Committee’s opinion the Deputy Premier ‘ought to do’ something. In context, ‘does’ and ‘clarifies’ are indicative while ‘do’ and ‘clarify’ are subjunctive. Therefore, the Committee should recommend that the Deputy Premier ‘clarify’ the intent of the Bill in his second reading speech.

Similarly, in any board meeting (another particularly formal setting), the correct way to express a proposed resolution is by using the subjunctive:

The Chair proposed that the Commission reconvene to discuss water concessions.

Do you see the difference? The active verb in the proposition is ‘reconvene’ and the subjunctive mood is therefore applied to it. This is because the statement is only a suggestion, not a matter that has been acted on and converted into a statement of fact. If the Commission decided to reconvene, then it could be stated as a matter of fact:

The Deputy Chair proposed that, when the Commission reconvenes, flood defence strategies also be discussed.

Now what is proposed is that flood defence strategies ‘be’ discussed. If that were to happen in reality, you would say that they ‘will be’ discussed (in the future) or that they ‘are being’ discussed (presently) or that they ‘were’ discussed (in the past).

Someone pointed out to me recently that the subjunctive is alive and well at his gym because it had appeared in a sign that read: ‘We request that all equipment be wiped down after use.’ It seems that in conventional instructional signage, subjective form is still ordinarily used. You wouldn’t say ‘We request that all equipment is wiped down after use.’

In French, the subjunctive is considered indispensable and not using it in its proper place is odd. Similarly, my elder sister laments the fact that the German version of the subjunctive is more nuanced than English subjunctive. In German you can say ‘He was watering the garden’ and use a special conjugation of the word ‘was’ so that your true meaning is ‘According to my source/It seems that/It appears that/It is alleged that he was watering the garden’. In a single word, this grammatical effect indicates that you are providing information that has not been objectively verified: the closest we have is ‘He is said to have been watering the garden.’

‘I love how subtle that tense is,’ my sister Helen says of the German Konjunktiv, ‘and how economical it is, compared to our clunky expressions that have to ensure a claim is backed up as conditional.’ Aussie police come close, she observes, with their stilted ‘A man has entered the building and has taken two weapons.’ Officials use the word ‘has’ like this to signal that their statements are allegations, yet to be proved in Court.

True, the situations in which the ‘irrealis mood’ is used vary from language to language. Yet, as you can see, the English language does provide several ways of expressing unreality or uncertainty. They are useful, elegant tools worth using in your writing.

Do you use the subjunctive? Post a comment to explain why or why not.


The original version of this article was published as ‘Style File’ in The Australian Writer issue 387 (March–May 2015).

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