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God save the Queen! - A subjunctive expression

A question from John in Ireland:
Although I am a native English speaker from Ireland, I teach French and a common problem with the French language for my students is the subjunctive
mode. I know it is also used (unknowingly) in English but can you give me some examples of its use in English? I'd be grateful for any help.


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George Pickering answers:
Well John, thanks for your question about the subjunctive in English. In fact we use the subjunctive in English less and less. But in the past we used it much more to talk about possible, desirable or imaginary situations. These days we are more likely to use modal verbs such as 'should' or 'would'. However, we can still use the subjunctive in certain situations.

Firstly, it is sometimes used in 'that' clauses after certain words (e.g. suggest, recommend, advise, insist) to express the idea that something is necessary or important.

For example:
I recommend that he begin a course of treatment immediately.
The judge insisted that she give evidence in court.

Now this use is more common in American English than it is British English.

We can also use the subjunctive of the verb 'be' after 'if' or 'I wish' with 'I' and 'he/she/it'. For example:
I wish I were young again.
If I were you, I'd use it while you have the chance.

And finally, we still use subjunctive forms in certain fixed expressions, for example:
God save the Queen.
Be that as it may, we must make savings.
If he decides to leave me, well so be it.

George Pickering is an educational coach, consultant and trainer. He is an associate tutor at the University of Sheffield, and a British Council inspector of language schools in the UK.


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