What Is the Subjunctive Mood? (with Examples)

Source: http://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/subjunctive_mood.htm

The subjunctive mood is the verb form used to express a wish, a suggestion, a command, or a condition that is contrary to fact.

The form of a verb in the subjunctive mood may differ from the form with the same subject which is not in the subjunctive mood. For example:

  • I was in your position two years ago.
      (not in the subjunctive mood)
    • If I were in your position, I would do the same.

(subjunctive mood)

Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

Here are some examples of verbs in the subjunctive mood:

      • I wish it were still in use.

(it was becomes it were)

        • The board recommended that the motion be passed immediately.

(motion is passed becomes motion be passed)

        • She suggests that Mark work full time from Saturday.

(Mark works becomes Mark work)

        • He said it was essential that Johan guard the box.

(Johan guards becomes Johan guard)

        • It is imperative that the game begin at once.

(game begins becomes game begin)

Through common usage, the non-subjunctive forms of verbs are gradually replacing the subjunctive forms. Many of the examples above sound incorrect. In summary, the changes are:


Verbs Which Attract the Subjunctive Mood

The following verbs often attract the subjunctive mood: ask, command, demand, insist, order, recommend, suggest, and wish.

Adjectives Which Attract the Subjunctive Mood

The following adjectives often attract the subjunctive mood: crucial, essential, important, imperative, and necessary.

What Is Mood?

Mood is the form a verb takes to show how it is to be regarded (e.g., as a fact, a command, a wish, an uncertainty).

There are three major moods in English:

The Indicative Mood. This states facts or asks questions. For example:

      • They are playing the guitar.
      • Are they playing the guitar?

The Imperative Mood. This expresses a command or a request. For example:

      • Play the guitar!
      • Please play the guitar.

The Subjunctive Mood. This shows a wish or doubt. For example:

  • I suggest that Lee play the guitar.
    • I propose that Lee be asked to play the guitar.
    • If I were Lee, I would play the guitar.

Lexis, Figurative meaning and Register

What is lexis?
Lexis (or vocabulary) refers to single words, or sets of words, that have a specific meaning, for example: car, pick up, in the end.

Types of meaning

  • What affects the meaning of items of lexis?

Items of lexis have different types of meaning depending on the situation or context they are used in, what function (purpose for communication, e.g. giving advice) they perform and who is using them.

  • Denotation and connotation

Exercise 1
What is the meaning of the underlined words in the sentences below? When you have thought
about the meaning, read the next section.

  1. Shall we sit at the table?
  2. I’m trying to give up chocolate.
  3. I’m going to take my books to school.
  4. He’s really skinny. I think he may be ill.
  5. This film is so boring!

The meaning of table in number 1 above is ‘a flat surface, usually supported by four legs, used for putting things on’ (from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Third Edition)). The meaning given in a dictionary is called the denotation (or sometimes the literal meaning). Literal meaning also refers to the original or basic meaning of a word or group of words (see also the section on figurative meaning on pages 6–7). Sometimes the denotation of individual words is obvious as in table in number 1 above, or take in number 3. At other times the denotation of a combination of words may be more difficult to understand as in give up in number 2 above. In this example of a multiword verb (a verb plus an adverb/preposition particle), the separate denotations of give and up do not give the meaning of give up. It is sometimes important to look at words in combination when understanding their meaning.

Look again at number 4 in Exercise 1. The denotation of the word skinny is ‘very thin’ but it has an additional negative meaning: an idea that is suggested by the word. This is called the connotation. So, the full meaning of skinny is ‘very thin (denotation) in a bad way (connotation)’. Words or sets of words can have a negative, a positive or a neutral connotation. Some dictionaries provide information about connotations. For example, the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Third Edition) says that skinny is ‘MAINLY DISAPPROVING’. Sometimes, it is the denotation itself that has a negative meaning, for example boring in number 5 in Exercise 1.

Because some words have negative connotations or denotations, people often avoid them by using other words or phrases. For example, they might use very slim because it is more positive than skinny. Sometimes people ‘soften’ words by adding others. For example, It was a bit boring is more positive than It was boring.

Exercise 2

Is the denotation or connotation of the underlined words below different from their denotation or connotation in Exercise 1?

  1. In business reports, it’s common to use tables and graphs.
  2. gave up ice-cream last year and feel so much healthier.
  3. I usually take the bus to work.
  4. He’s as skinny as he was when he was 16. He looks great!


In English, many words can be used with different meanings. Some words (e.g. table) can change their meaning because they are used for different things. Some can ‘lose’ their meaning. For example, take has a denotation of ‘move from one place to another’ but in number 3 in Exercise 2, it has ‘lost’ this meaning without gaining another. This is because it is part of the collocation take a bus, i.e. the words take and bus regularly go together and the meaning of take cannot be separated from bus. Verbs that ‘lose’ their meaning in this way are called delexicalised verbs. Another example is have in I have a shower every morning (which does not mean ‘possess or own a shower’).

The connotation of a word can also change according to the situation or the context it is used in or the person using it. For example, in number 4 above, although skinny often has a negative connotation, the speaker is using it in a positive way. When using lexis it is important to make sure you understand the denotation, the generally accepted connotation and also the specific connotation in the context in which it is being used.

  • Figurative meaning

The term figurative is used to describe words or sets of words whose meaning is non-literal and imaginative. For example: I could eat a horse means ‘I’m extremely hungry’, they received a flood of letters means ‘they received a lot of letters all at once’ and he can swim like a fish means ‘he can swim very well’. In order to find the meaning of a figurative phrase in a dictionary, decide which word is key and look for this in the dictionary. For example, eat is key in the first example above.

  • Register

Exercise 3

Look at the dictionary entry below for the word drill.
drill /drɪl/ noun [C]
1 a tool or machine which makes holes

(Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Third Edition), Cambridge University Press 2008)

Now look at drill in the sentence below. Is the meaning the same as above?

When I teach I like to drill my students by getting them to repeat words two or three times, so they can practice and remember the pronunciation.

The word drill has changed its meaning in the sentence because it is being used by a particular person (a teacher) to mean ‘ordered and controlled repetition of language’. The set of words used by particular groups of people (e.g. people who have the same jobs, are of the same age, belong to the same social group) is called register. As with drill, this can mean that a word can change its meaning, or that a different word is used instead of a more common one. For example, leave means the same as depart but depart is perhaps more commonly used in the register of public transport services.

Register and style (a typical way of conveying information, e.g. business-like or casual) also refer to the kind of words used in a particular kind of text, for example a letter of complaint or a relaxed chat at a party. This may involve using formal or informal (also called colloquial) words. For example, we expect a formal speech to begin with Good morning/evening/afternoon rather than Hi. The function (i.e. greeting) remains the same but because Hi is not the right register for a formal speech, it is used
wrongly in this context.

You can often find out what register a word or set of words is by looking in a good English dictionary, such as the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Third Edition). Entries in this dictionary will tell you if a word is formal or informal. For example: ‘hi exclamation INFORMAL’. The definitions given in a dictionary will often tell you if a word is used by a particular group of people. For example, drill is associated with the military, which leads to the meaning teachers give it.

It’s time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English

Why do we persist in thinking that standard English is right, when it is spoken by only 15% of the British population? Linguistics-loving Harry Ritchie blames Noam Chomsky.

Teacher and schoolboy

‘If a non-standard-speaking child persists in using non‑standard English, particularly non-standard grammar, that child will not progress.’ Photograph: Hulton Getty

Did you see that great documentary on linguistics the other night? What about that terrific series on Radio 4 about the Indo-European language family tree? Or that news report on language extinction? It is strange that none of those programmes happened, or has ever happened: it’s not as if language is an arcane subject. Just as puzzling is the conspicuous lack of a properly informed book about language – either our own or language in general.

There is, of course, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct – a bestseller that seems to have ticked the box for publishers and public alike as the book on linguistics. But The Language Instinct has a very specific agenda – to support Noam Chomsky’s theories about our language skills being innate; other areas of linguistics are glimpsed, if at all, fuzzily in the background.

I’m not blaming Pinker. He ultimately failed to justify his title, but he did reach a keen, large audience with a well-written book fizzing with ideas and examples. I’m blaming someone else, the person who, inexplicably, doesn’t exist – who should have written the book revealing how Pinker was so wrong and had a ding-dong with him on Newsnight; the ambitious, good-looking academic, who possibly had a spell in an indie band, with his or her own 13-part series about language on BBC2.

I began to appreciate how little we know about our own language when I studied grammar to teach English as a foreign language. I looked for a linguistically informed grammar guide, but couldn’t find one. Finally, I gave up on waiting and decided to have a go myself. As a layman with an amateur’s adoration for his subject, I find it astonishing that hardly anyone outside university linguistics departments knows the slightest thing about it. Whether it is the new discoveries of neurolinguistics or the 150-year-old revelations of the scholars who traced the Indo-European language family tree, linguistics can offer zap-kapow findings that trump those of archeology and even astronomy.

Take the Proto-Indo-Europeans, that mysterious tribe whose homeland was recently located north of the Caspian Sea in about 3,300 BC. Their language somehow obliterated the hundreds of others then spoken in Europe and northern India, so that almost every language currently spoken, from Iceland to the Himalayas, is descended from one tongue. Dramatic enough, but, even more sensationally, much of that language has been reconstructed, so that we know, for example, their words for sky (dyeu) and father (pihter), and their chief god the Sky Father (Dyeu Pihter). Thanks to language, we know a great deal about the tribe – its kinship system, its beliefs, the feasts it held at which bards declaimed the long praise-poems that may well be the forerunners of the Sanskrit Vedic epics and The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer. We even know that the tribe had two words for different sorts of farting.

That few people have heard of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, or know about language evolution, children’s language acquisition or the current process of language extinction, seems to me to be a crying shame. But the insights of linguistics are of social and political as well as intellectual importance.

The modern study of language has shown that all native speakers are experts in their language. Almost all judgments about someone’s language – the laziness of a glottal stop, the slowness of rural speech, the supposed ugliness of a particular urban accent – have no linguistic justification and reflect only the prejudice of the judger. However, very few people are aware of these basic findings.

Linguistics has discovered that a language is created by a democratic collective of magnificently gifted experts – but has told nobody else about it. Frustrating as it is to hear discussions about the heinous abuse of “hopefully” or “disinterested”, this public ignorance about language gets properly serious with the continuing discrimination against non-standard English.

Non-standard English is linguistically the equal of the standard version – in fact, dialects tend to be more sophisticated grammatically than standard (as in the plural “youse” of many non-standard dialects where standard has just one confusing form). Yet standard continues – even now – to be prized as the “correct” form, and any deviation is considered to be wrong, lazy, corrupt or ignorant.

This is most obviously the case in the education system. If a non-standard-speaking child persists in using non‑standard English, particularly non-standard grammar, that child will rarely progress. This is, of course, a class issue, standard English being the only dialect defined by socioeconomics rather than geography, and spoken by only 15% of the British population (the richest 15%). It is working-class children whose language is still marked as incorrect and who have to intuit the need to switch dialects – or fail..

In any formal, written context, only standard English is accepted. And in any informal, middle-class context, from office email to pub chat, non-standard usage will be noticed by standard speakers, who will judge that non-standard user to be at least unsophisticated, probably uneducated and very possibly a bit thick.

Let me quote a letter-writer to the Scotsman newspaper last year, complaining about declining linguistic standards. “I remember one candidate in a job interview,” the letter-writer reminisced, “saying, ‘Oh, we done that in media studies.’ End of interview,” he finished, approvingly.

Why has linguistics failed to counteract this discrimination? I put it down to the strange way that the discipline developed under the aegis of the man who has dominated and defined it since the late 50s, the father of modern linguistics, Chomsky.

Chomsky’s theories were based on his ingenious explanation for the phenomenon that is children’s language acquisition. Toddlers, who are surrounded by the broken babble of ordinary speech and who can do little else for themselves, somehow master many, or even most, grammatical constructions – because, Chomsky reasoned, there has to be innate software providing babies and toddlers with the equipment to get them up and talking. This means, he concluded, that human languages have to be organized according to universal constraints and rules, “principles and parameters”. These constitute a “deep structure”, converted into the individual operations of a particular language by a series of “transformations”. Chomsky first outlined this idea in 1967 and has spent his non-political career since hunting for the universal features provided by our innate programming.

Brilliant – but wrong. Recent evidence from neurology, genetics and linguistics all points to there being no innate programming. Children learn language just as they learn all their other skills, by experience. The case against Chomsky is conclusive. The new empirical “connectionist” school and the various branches of cognitive linguistics have brought the subject back to scientific principles. Linguistics has undergone a revolution in the last 20 years, and Chomsky has been dethroned.

However, the wholesale acceptance of Chomsky’s rationalist assumptions has meant that the discipline has been hunting for unicorns while neglecting many key areas of language. There is still little research being carried out on, for example, environmental influences on children’s language acquisition.

Most pressingly of all, too little work is being done to record the languages currently facing extinction. By one estimate, 95% of the 7,000 languages now spoken in the world are in danger of dying out. Recording these should have been a priority.

Chomksy also played a significant part in creating a subject that managed to avoid engagement with culture and society. He turned grammar into an technical subject full of jargon and algebra studied on whiteboards by men with beards, leaving everyone prey to the pernicious drivel of the traditional grammar guardians, who belong to the 15%. It is crazy that such an unfair social-exclusion system should go on operating, and still without censure.

Linguistics has taught me many wonderful things, but it has also neglected many tasks, including telling the world about its discoveries. So if there is an academic linguist out there with good bone structure and a past career as a rhythm guitarist, please, for the love of God, get yourself a decent agent.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/31/one-way-speak-english-standard-spoken-british-linguistics-chomsk

Johnson: Do different languages confer different personalities?

No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.  Speaking Spanish rather than English, for a bilingual and bicultural Puerto Rican in New York, might conjure feelings of family and home. Switching to English might prime the same person to think of school and work. The most interesting bit is the ANGLE that the writer has taken – he says that apart from all the usual advantages, you become a different PERSON!

Source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2013/11/multilingualism

LAST week, Johnson took a look at some of the advantages of bilingualism. These include better performance at tasks involving “executive function” (which involve the brain’s ability to plan and prioritise), better defence against dementia in old age and—the obvious—the ability to speak a second language. One purported advantage was not mentioned, though. Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example,reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called “Whorfianism”, this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought.

This influence is not necessarily linked to the vocabulary or grammar of a second language. Significantly, most people are not symmetrically bilingual. Many have learned one language at home from parents, and another later in life, usually at school. So bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.

What of “crib” bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages. Experiments in psychology have shown the power of “priming”—small unnoticed factors that can affect behaviour in big ways. Asking people to tell a happy story, for example, will put them in a better mood. The choice between two languages is a huge prime. Speaking Spanish rather than English, for a bilingual and bicultural Puerto Rican in New York, might conjure feelings of family and home. Switching to English might prime the same person to think of school and work.

So there are two very good reasons (asymmetrical ability, and priming) that make people feel different speaking their different languages. We are still left with a third kind of argument, though. An economist recently interviewed here at Prospero, Athanasia Chalari, said for example that:

Greeks are very loud and they interrupt each other very often. The reason for that is the Greek grammar and syntax. When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily.

Is there something intrinsic to the Greek language that encourages Greeks to interrupt? Consider Johnson sceptical. People seem to enjoy telling tales about their languages’ inherent properties, and how they influence their speakers. A group of French intellectual worthies once proposed, rather self-flatteringly, that French be the sole legal language of the EU, because of its supposedly unmatchable rigour and precision. Some Germans believe that frequently putting the verb at the end of a sentence makes the language especially logical. But language myths are not always self-flattering: many speakers think their languages are unusually illogical or difficult—witness the plethora of books along the lines of “Only in English do you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway; English must be the craziest language in the world!” What such pop-Whorfian stories share is a (natural) tendency to exoticise languages. We also see some unsurprising overlap with national stereotypes and self-stereotypes: French, rigorous; German, logical; English, playful. Of course.

In this case, Ms Chalari, a scholar, at least proposed a specific and plausible line of causation from grammar to personality: in Greek, the verb comes first, and it carries a lot of information, hence easy interrupting. The problem is that many unrelated  languages all around the world put the verb at the beginning of sentences. Many languages all around the world are heavily inflected, encoding lots of information in verbs. It would be a striking finding if all of these unrelated languages had speakers more prone to interrupting each other. Welsh, for example, is also both verb-first and about as heavily inflected as Greek, but the Welsh are not known as pushy conversationalists.

Neo-Whorfians continue to offer evidence and analysis that aims to prove that different languages push speakers to think differently. One such effort is forthcoming: “The Bilingual Mind” by Aneta Pavlenko, to be published in April. Ms Pavlenko speaks to François Grosjean here. Meanwhile, John McWhorter takes the opposite stance in “The Language Hoax”, forthcoming in February. We’ll return to this debate. But strong Whorfian arguments do not need to be valid for people to feel differently in their different languages.