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GMAT Grammar: The Subjunctive Mood

Would that you understood this complex form, lest you be confused on GMAT Sentence Correction!

Some of the more difficult GMAT Sentence Correction questions will involve the subjunctive.  What is the subjunctive?

 

Verb Moods

In addition to tenses (past, present, future) and number (singular vs. plural), verbs also have “moods”.  English has three verb moods: (1) indicative, (2) imperative, and (3) subjunctive.  The indicative is what you probably think of as ordinary English: simple statements of fact.  Examples:

The quality of mercy is not strained.  (indicative present)

This was the most unkindest cut of all.  (indicative past)

Birnam wood shall come to Dunsinane.  (indicative future)

The imperative mood, not a likely subject for GMAT Sentence Correction, is only used in commands and instructions:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.

To thine own self be true.

Mend your speech a little, lest it mar your fortunes.

That last quote, Lear’s words to Cordelia, is a two-for-one: the verb “mend” is in the imperative mood, but the verb “mar” is in the subjunctive mood.

 

The Subjunctive

When are talking about plain facts and truths we know for certain, we use the indicative mood.  The subjunctive is for everything that’s not so certain.  We use the subjunctive to talk about:

1) Counterfactual possibilities — that is, hypothetical possibilities that, at the moment, simply are not true

2) Doubtful possibilities

3) Possibilities in the constructions such as “wish that”, “desire that”, or “lest that”

 

The Subjunctive for Counterfactual Possibilities

Even if something is not true at the moment, it may be an important possibility to consider.  We use the past subjunctive in an “if” clause to discuss such counterfactual possibilities.

If I were you, I would explain the situation to her immediately.

Even if he had a million dollars, he still would complain about not having enough.

If I read six books at once, I would confuse all the plots and characters.

 

The past subjunctive uses the plural past tense form of the verb.  For most verbs, the past tense is the same for singular & plural, but for the form “to be”, the singular past tense (“was”) is different from the plural past tense (“were”).  This means, for most verbs, the past subjunctive will be indistinguishable from the past indicative; verb “to be” is the only verb that would reveal the different.

 

Doubtful Possibilities

Sometimes we need to plan for things that are unlikely, but that could happen.  We use the future subjunctive in an “if” clause to discuss such possibilities.

If I were to win the lottery, I finally would buy a new car.

If I were to learn Sanskrit, I would understand etymology much better.

If he were to be the next Picasso, I would be very happy to have known him for so long.

Notice: the form of the future subjunctive is “were” + the infinitive of the verb.

 

Wishes, Desires and “Lest”

We use the present subjunctive to express any wish/desire/etc. that is stated in a clause beginning with “that.”  We also use the present subjunctive in clauses that follow the word “lest.”

My parents desire that I be famous.

She hopes that she not be chosen for the committee.

He wants to clear his name, lest he lose some of his civil rights.

I study assiduously, lest I do poorly on the GMAT.

 

These may sound awkward, because fewer than 1% of the population uses these grammatical forms correctly.  Notice that the present subjunctive is merely the infinite form of the verb without the “to”; for many verbs, this is identical to the indicative present, but we don’t add an “s” for the third-person singular (he/she/it).

 

How Does One Learn the Subjunctive?

Since these forms are rarely used, and often used incorrectly, it’s hard to get the correct grammar into your ear.  The best way is to read sophisticated material: scholar books, The Economist Magazine, the New York Times.  When you are reading works like this, have your antennae up for the subjunctive, and write down in a journal examples you find of it.  Over time, you will develop familiarity.

Here’s a free practice SC problem, using some of these ideas: http://gmat.magoosh.com/questions/1175

 

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

18 Responses to GMAT Grammar: The Subjunctive Mood

  1. Confuse Mind August 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    I have 2 different forms, which often confuse me, getting used:

    I request you to do my homework. – form 1
    I request that you do my homework. – form 2

    Further, the grammar books say that some verbs can be used in form -1 only, some in form-2 only, and the others in both the forms.

    Can you please post an article/ reply here itself to throw good light on this topic.

    • Mike
      Mike August 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

      The verb “request” always takes “that” + [a clause in the subjunctive]. That will be correct on the GMAT 100% of the time.
      The “request” followed by an infinitive phrase is incorrect and will be wrong on the GMAT 100% of the time. Any grammar books that recommend this should be soaked in kerosene and summarily burned on a large bonfire.
      How is that for clarity?
      Mike :-)

  2. Confuse Mind August 16, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    You took an example to change the form from imperative to subjunctive. I have a doubt in that.

    The sentence “I would be delighted if you were to sweep the floor.” is not a hypothetical one and thus we should use the wish/desire form as you described above.

    I feel:
    I would be delighted if you were to sweep the floor. – wrong
    I want that you sweep the floor.

    Thanks!

    • Mike
      Mike August 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

      The sentence “I would be delighted if you were to sweep the floor” is technically correct, but it’s a bit too wordy for the GMAT’s tastes. One could also say, “I would be delighted, were you to sweep the floor” — again, perfectly correct, but probably not a form you would see on the GMAT.
      The sentence “I want that you sweep the floor” is irredeemably wrong. The verb “want” is never followed by a “that” clause, and always followed by an infinitive phrase, as in:
      “I want you to sweep the floor.”
      That is grammatically correct, direct, and concise — exactly what the GMAT SC loves.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  3. SCS June 9, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Hi,
    The link to the same question is not valid.

    Thanks

    • Mike
      Mike June 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

      Dear SCS: I’m sorry about that. I”m not sure what happened there, but I just updated the link and it appears to work fine now. Thank you for bring this to our attention.
      Mike :)

  4. Max May 17, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    The imperative is the command subjunctive? Or in command we must use the same structure as in Wishes?

    • Mike
      Mike May 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

      Max: No. The three verb “moods” are (1) the indicative, (2) the imperative, and (3) the subjunctive. Those three are mutually exclusive. BUT, notice that if I want someone to do something, I can command them in the imperative (“Sweep the floor!”) or I can ask them in a hyper-polite roundabout way using the subjunctive (“I would be delighted if you were to sweep the floor.”) We might also use the subjunctive to describe other people’s commands (“The emperor commanded that the minister kneel before him.”) — notice *our* description of the event uses the subjunctive, but the emperor undoubtedly used the imperative (“Kneel before me!”)
      Does that make sense?
      Mike :)

      • Nuno August 14, 2012 at 5:55 am #

        Thanks a lot Mike u´ve just killed a question of mine!! The description of a command by using the subjunctive is great :D

        • Mike
          Mike August 14, 2012 at 9:28 am #

          Dear Nuno: Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you found it helpful. Best of luck to you!
          Mike :-)

  5. VK April 24, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    Hi,

    In the following sentence you have used ‘want’ as subjunctive:

    He wants to clear his name, lest he lose some of his civil rights.

    But, MGMAT says, in its Verbal guide, that ‘want’ takes only infinitives, ie ‘want’ never takes a subjunctive form. Can you clarify this?

    ~VK.

    • Mike
      Mike April 26, 2012 at 11:48 am #

      In that sentence, what takes the subjunctive is the word “lest” — a “lest” clause demands the subjunctive. Notice that, in the sentence you cite, the word “want” is immediately followed by an infinitive “to clear” — indeed, it’s true, the word “want” takes the infinitive. Does that make sense?
      Mike :-)

  6. Vinoth@GMAT Kolaveri April 24, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    are subjective verbs always in plural?

    • Mike
      Mike April 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      First of all, these verbs are “subjunctive”, not “subjective” :). As I explain above, *past subjunctive” uses the past plural. Future subjunctive = “were” + infinitive. Present subjunctive = infinitive without “to”. The infinitive without “to” in many cases is identical to the plural, but don’t be confused. The difference is most important with the verb “to be” — the present subjunctive is “…lest he be …” (the infinitive), not “…lest he are …” (plural). Does that make sense?
      Mike :)

      • Abhishek December 24, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

        Your blog itself uses the term ‘subjective’ for ‘subjunctive’. It starts from ‘The Subjective for Counterfactual Possibilities’.

        • Mike
          Mike December 24, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

          Yes, thank you for pointing out that typo. I just fixed it. Best of luck to you.
          Mike :-)

          • Abhishek December 24, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

            You are welcome :). There is one more similar typo, just two lines later in the same section.

            • Mike
              Mike December 24, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

              Got those as well. I believe the word subjective appears now nowhere in the post, only in these comments. Thanks again!
              Mike :-)


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