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If you have studied English for a while, you probably have heard about every grammar topic under the sun: the present perfect, conditionals, relative clauses, modal verbs, and so on. However, there is one topic that goes often ignored by most teachers of English, simply because the evolution of the English language is rendering it mostly extinct in casual conversation.
You’re probably thinking: Sub-what? What is that? Don’t worry! Most native speakers don’t even know what the subjunctive is.
To explain it briefly, the subjunctive is a mood that is used mostly in situations of doubt or irreality. The subjunctive exists in many languages, but in English, it is seemingly dying out.
Here is an example of the Present Subjunctive:
Incorrect: It is important that you are here on time.
Correct: It is important that you be here on time.
Some teachers of English might not correct you if you said something similar to the first (incorrect) sentence, and that is because this sort of construction is becoming all-too-common in English. In fact, you can hear it in songs and movies quite frequently, and most native speakers in casual contexts would not notice the mistake.
In the correct sentence, we use the Present Subjunctive of “to be”. Check out this conjugation table, courtesy of Verbix.com:
If you look at the Indicative mood, which is the mood for actions that are perceived as real or actual by the speaker, you’ll see the conjugation that you have come to know and love in the present. However, in the Present Subjunctive, it’s all “be”: I be, you be, he/she/it be, we be, you (all) be, they be
The reason we use the subjunctive in the sentence above is somewhat simple. The action of “being on time” is doubtful in the context of the sentence. Being on time is important, but the sentence itself expresses some sort of doubt or uncertainty that you might not be on time. Therefore, we use the subjunctive.
Admittedly, it is difficult to apply a hard-and-fast rule. Some sentences that might seemingly express doubt would not require the subjunctive. For example, the sentence “I guess that she is at home” seemingly expresses doubt, but not in reality as your “guess” is more like an opinion, i.e. something you believe/assume to be true.
Given the complexities, it is best just to memorize where you might use the subjunctive in English. And fortunately, with a few exceptions (such as “to be”), you will only “see” the present subjunctive in the third person:
I insist that she go home now.
We propose that Jan go to the meeting.
They recommend that he stay in jail.
You’ll see that the subjunctive is used in “that clauses” where some sort of order is being made: insist, propose, recommend, etc.
As we noted above, the subjunctive is losing ground in English. In fact, in casual, every-day conversation, it might sound too formal to use it, even snobbish.
That said, in some formal settings or formal writing, it is a good idea to use the subjunctive. For example, if you were giving an academic presentation at a university auditorium, you would probably try to use the subjunctive. If you were writing a formal email to your colleagues about a policy change in your company, you would probably want to use the subjunctive.