Jezek from the Czech Republic writes: Please could you
explain how to use the subjunctive? E.g.: ‘It’s important that the
lesson be funny.’ When should we use ‘be’ and why?
Maria Goranova from the Czech Republic asks: What
is the use of the present subjunctive in modern English? Why is
it possible to, and when is it possible, to ignore the subjunctive
and use present simple or past simple instead? E.g.: ‘Why is it
so important that he goes there?’ instead of ‘Why is it so important
that he (should) go there?’ Also, what is the correct construction
to be used in the so-called ‘that’ clause?
Sarai from Mexico writes: Could you please tell me
how to use the verb ‘recommend’?
subjunctive is used to express intention or proposal about
the future. It requires use of the verb in its basic form rather than
its normal tense form.
We don’t use the subjunctive very much in contemporary English
unless we wish to sound very formal. With verbs like suggest, recommend,
insist and adjectives like important, essential, imperative,
crucial, vital, we often use should+infinitive
instead of the subjunctive or we can use the normal tense form. The
reporting verbs and adjectives above are normally followed by a that-clause
in which that itself is often omitted.
In your example, Olly, ‘It’s important that the lesson be funny’ sounds
We would normally say: ‘It’s important that the lesson should be funny.’
Compare also the following:
doctor recommended (that) he should give up smoking.
doctor recommended (that) he give up smoking. (More formal)
doctor recommended (that) he gives up smoking. (Less formal)
+ be + adjective: desirable/important/essential/imperative/vital/etc
In all of these examples below with should, you can substitute
the subjunctive if you want to make it sound more formal or the present
simple tense if you want it to be less formal:
is essential (that) you should be given your medication
by a properly qualified nurse. (Or: be given, or are
the future well-being of the company, it is imperative (that)
he should resign now. (Or: resign, or resigns.)
is desirable (that) he should be retained in custody, rather
than released on bail. (Or: be retained, or is retained.)
is vital (that) he should receive some treatment (or receive,
or receives) whether he be (or is) innocent
or guilty of this particular crime.
Similarly with these reporting verbs, we can use should, the subjunctive
or the normal tense in the that-clause, depending on whether it is
appropriate to sound formal or not:
government tried to insist (that) all firearms should be handed
in without delay. (Or: be handed in, or are handed in.)
doctors have recommended (that) he should remain in hospital for
a further three weeks. (Or: remain, or remains.)
suggested he should leave right now. (Or: leave, or leaves.)
Note that these reporting verbs do not require should or a that-clause
and are normally used instead with a simple infinitive. The issue
of whether to use the subjunctive or not with these verbs does not
Consider the following:
mother advised them to be home by ten o’ clock.
required me to clean the house every Saturday.
asked me to let you know how much it would cost.
warned him not to swim where there were dangerous currents.
Were is also a kind of subjunctive when it is used with I and
he/she/it instead of was with wish and in if-clauses.
If we use the more natural was, it will sound more informal.
Consider the following:
wish I were (or was) home now.
wish it were (or was) the weekend.
I were (or was) you, I’d get in touch with Veronika
before she leaves for Australia
I were (or was) still living with John, I’d be much
better off, but I wouldn’t be so independent.
expressions with the subjunctive
There are a number of fixed expressions which require the subjunctive,
you. (Which means: May God bless you.)
live our gracious Queen. (The first line of the British National
toast now: long live the bride and groom.
have always supported you financially, but be that as it may,
I can no longer support your current lifestyle.
If I have to pretend that you no longer exist, so be it.
Be that as it may means whether that is the case or
notSo be it means nothing can or will be done to
change that .