Verbs and Mood, Voice, Number, Person and Tense for English Grammar
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Verbs make statements of fact and what is believed to be fact. They also express wishes, suppositions, doubts, commands, and conditions contrary to fact. Mood is the characteristic of a verb that tells the reader which of these functions a writer intends.
The three moods in English are indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. The indicative mood makes statements of fact or what is believed to be fact. The indicative also asks questions.
John Donne was born in London. (There is ample evidence to support this statement, so the writer uses the indicative mood to state it as fact.)
Was John Donne born in London? (This verb asks a question and so is in the indicative mood.)
She believes her physician is well qualified. (Whether she is correct or not, the verb is indicates that she believes her statement to be true. The verb believes is in the indicative mood, because the writer of the sentence is reporting what she takes to be fact.)
Is her physician at her bedside? (The verb is is in the indicative mood because it asks a question.)
The subjunctive mood appears in relatively few constructions. It is used most often to express conditions contrary to fact and to express wishes, suppositions, and doubts. (The uses of the subjunctive are discussed fully in the next section.) The subjunctive appears most often in formal writing and in the speech of educated persons. The indicative mood almost always replaces the subjective mood in informal writing and everyday speech.
I wish my father were still alive. (This is a wish, so were is in the subjunctive mood.)
Suppose he were still alive, would he favor that action? (The verb were is in the subjunctive mood because suppose he were still alive is a supposition.)
If this be treason, make the most of it! (The speaker firmly believes he or she is not guilty of treason, but there may be doubt in the minds of others. The subjunctive be expresses this doubt.)
If Helen Wills Moody were representing us at Wimbledon today, victory would be ours. (The conjunction If introduces a conditional statement. Since Helen Wills Moody is not alive to represent us at Wimbledon, the condition is contrary to fact. The verb were representing indicates that this condition is contrary to fact.)
The subjunctive mood is distinguished from the indicative in the third person singular of all verbs and in certain forms of the verb be. The following table shows the typical verb want in the present tense and the verb be in the present and past tenses.
The imperative mood expresses a command or makes an urgent demand:
- Leave the room!
- Call an ambulance!
- Let them die!
The imperative mood is used only in the second and third persons, singular and plural.
Uses of the Subjunctive Mood
The subjunctive mood is used for (1) conditions contrary to fact; (2) wishes, recommendations, and demands in clauses introduded by that or in clauses in which that is implied; and (3) certain idiomatic expressions.
The subjunctive has few uses in modern English. More and more, the subjunctive mood is being replaced by the indicative mood or by simplified constructions that avoid verbs entirely. Nevertheless, good writing and speech still employ the subjunctive.
Conditions Contrary to Fact
A condition that cannot be true is known as a condition contrary to fact.
If I were ten years younger, I would remarry. (The presence of a condition is signaled by the conjunction If. Because the condition is contrary to fact, the subjunctive were is used.)
If President Lyndon B. Johnson were still alive, he would find that many of the policies he followed are still in force today. (Condition contrary to fact requires the subjunctive were.)
Clauses introduced by that or clauses in which that is implied frequently express wishes, recommendations, demands, orders, formal motions, or parliamentary resolutions. The subjunctive is used in these clauses. Consider the following sentences:
I wish that I were prime minister. (The subjunctive were, not indicative was.)
I recommend that he take a trip abroad. (Subjunctive take, not indicative takes.)
We demand that they be silenced. (Subjunctive be silenced, not indicative are silenced.)
We ask only that the most guilty be punished. (Subjunctive be punished, not indicative are punished.)
She moved that parliamentary procedure be laid aside. (Subjunctive be laid, not indicative is laid.)
Resolved, that a fifty-first state be admitted to the union. (Subjunctive be admitted, not indicative is admitted.)
The relative pronoun that can be omitted from the first three of the preceding sentences without changing meaning and without altering the requirement for employing the subjunctive mood:
- I wish I were prime minister.
- I recommend he take a trip abroad.
- We demand they be silenced.
The English language has certain constructions that remain fixed in the subjunctive mood. These idiomatic constructions include: be that as it may, be it said, come what may, God bless you, far be it from me, and suffice it to say.
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