Present subjunctive in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The present subjunctive is a really easy mood to use: it is always identical to the infinitive in English, and speakers of other Germanic and Romance languages should be familiar with the concept (it is called “conjunctive” in some languages).

The present subjunctive is used after phrases like “It is important that”, “I insist that”, or “It is necessary that”, for example:

It is necessary that he go there next week. (correct, formal)
It is necessary that he goes there next week. (see below)
I insist that she leave now. (correct, formal)
I insist that she leaves now. (see below)

When you think about it, the red examples do not make much sense. Nevertheless, some speakers (especially British) tend to use the indicative mood (the present tense) instead of the present subjunctive there. This should be avoided in formal writing because it may lead to misunderstandings. Compare:

It is important that he have a computer. (subjunctive)
It is important that he has a computer. (indicative)

The former sentence says that he is required to have a computer. The latter, on the other hand, literally means that he already has a computer, and this fact is important.

Of course, the subjunctive differs from the indicative only in the third person singular. In all other cases, you have to recognize the intended meaning from the context. The sentence

It is important that you have a computer.

can mean two different things, depending on whether “have” is in the subjunctive or the indicative mood.

In spoken English, the subjunctive is commonly replaced by another construction:

It is essential that he come early. (rather formal)
It is essential for him to come early. (common in speech)

In British English, the present subjunctive is often replaced by “should + infinitive”:

It is essential that he should come early. (chiefly British)

This construction is less common in American English and may be considered unnatural by some, so I recommend sticking to the subjunctive.

This article was based on my guide to the most common mistakes in English, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?

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