Tips for Teaching the Subjunctive

If I were you…

English doesn’t just have verb tenses, it also has voices and moods. One of the moods that students struggle with most is the subjunctive. The subjunctive is used only in specific cases that students aren’t often exposed to until they reach a high-intermediate or advanced level. But presenting the subjunctive earlier on isn’t a bad idea—when it’s laid out in certain patterns (see below), it becomes easier to understand and remember. Also, this form is often included in certain tests such as the TOEIC, and students of all levels take these tests. Most students wish the subjunctive were easier to learn—make their wish a reality!

The Subjunctive

In English, the subjunctive is a grammatical mood that is used to express an unreal situation such as a wish, possibility, or action that may or may not happen. The most common occurrences of the subjunctive that students are likely to encounter include sentences reporting suggestions, the second conditional, and sentences with “wish.”

1. Reporting Suggestions

Use #1

The subjunctive form is used for reporting suggestions. Certain verbs (that I like to call verbs of suggestion to help students easily pick them out) in the independent (main) clause will result in the base form of the verb in the dependent “that” clause. Point out this pattern to students:

Verb of suggestion + that + base verb

Some of the more common verbs of suggestion that follow this pattern include: advise, ask, demand, insist, prefer, propose, recommend, request, require, suggest, and urge.

  • His boss demanded that he work overtime.
  • Her teacher suggested that she study for three hours last night.
  • I prefer that he speak to me directly.

Use #2

The subjunctive form is also used for giving strong suggestions or commands. Certain adjectives (that I call adjectives of importance to help students remember) in the independent clause will result in the base form of the verb in the dependent “that” clause. Point out this pattern to students:

Adjective of importance + that + base verb

Some common adjectives that follow this pattern include: important, necessary, imperative, essential, vital, and urgent.

  • It was important that he call me yesterday.
  • It is essential that the operator of this machine remain calm during an emergency.
  • I think it is necessary that your dog be kept on a leash while in this area.

Notes

Note #1

Make sure you don’t give students example sentences where they won’t notice the base verb. If you use the simple present tense and a subject other than the third-person singular, students may think it’s a simple present verb in the dependent clause instead of a base verb. For instance, in the sentence They suggest that we look over the document, “look” could be mistaken for a simple present verb instead of a base verb.

Note #2

The subjunctive often occurs in clauses that begin with “that.” Point out to students that seeing “that” is a good indication that the subjunctive may be required (particularly on a test such as the TOEIC). However, “that” can be dropped in English, so it isn’t always a surefire way to spot the subjunctive. (E.g., I suggested that he study for at least two hours. / I suggested he study for at least two hours.) It’s more important to notice the verb or adjective in the main clause. Is the meaning of the verb “suggestion”? Is the meaning of the adjective “importance”? If so, the subjunctive should be used.

2. The Second Conditional

The second conditional, also known as the unreal conditional, follows this pattern:

If + past, would + base verb

It is used to show an unlikely or impossible outcome that probably wouldn’t happen. The subjunctive mood becomes apparent when we use the be verb. This verb always takes the form of were, no matter what the subject is. It’s a holdover from long ago when we used certain forms to express mood far more often than we do nowadays. It’s important to point out this was/were case to your students because they won’t be expecting it! Give them a few examples (make sure the subject would normally take “was”). You could also print out the lyrics to “If I Were a Boy” by Beyonce and play it in class as a fun way to see the subjunctive in use.

  • If I were rich, I’d travel around the world.
  • If he weren’t so lazy, he would get good grades.

For more tips on the conditional forms, check out my blog post: An Easy Way to Teach Conditionals. For an example of this form in use, look at the quote in the Grammar Review section of our Mini Debates lesson The Right to Die.

3. Wish

Another case where the subjunctive is used in English is with the verb wish. When wish is used in the independent clause, the be verb always takes the form were in the dependent clause when there is a present or future meaning. This confuses students for two reasons: 1) Why do we use a past verb when our meaning is present or future? 2) Why don’t we use was for the first and third persons singular? Again, we use were to indicate a hypothetical or unreal situation. It’s good to get them to memorize the pattern wish + were.

  • I wish I were able to go to Vegas with you next month, but there’s no way I can get the time off work.
  • She wishes that she were taller.

Note about wish and hope:

Wish indicates an impossible or unlikely situation (much like the second conditional); use were, a past verb, a past perfect verb, or would + verb.

  • I wish you would stop growing so fast.

Hope indicates a possible situation (much like the first conditional); use a present verb or will + verb.

  • I hope you feel better soon.

If I were filthy rich, I’d still blog about grammar!
Tanya

Sources

  • Collins Cobuild English Grammar, section 7.40.
  • My own brain after 10 years of teaching TOEIC. :)

10 comments

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  1. ashishsharma.iiitm@gmail.com'

    ASHISH says:

    Aug 14, 2018 at 11:24 am

    could you throw some light on note about WISH; Wish indicates an impossible or unlikely situation (much like the second conditional); use were, a past verb, a past perfect verb, or would + verb. how we can use a past verb, a past perfect verb in subjunctive ? can you give some examples ?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 14, 2018 at 3:21 pm

      Hi Ashish,

      I’ve written a blog post on Hope Vs. Wish that has a lot of information and examples with “wish.” Find it here: http://blog.esllibrary.com/2014/06/19/hope-vs-wish/

      The one thing to remember about “wish” being a subjunctive verb is that it takes “were,” not “was,” for all subjects when using the past form of the Be verb. Otherwise, wish follows normal verb tense patterns.

      Reply

  2. hannah.g.m.sims@gmail.com'

    Hannah says:

    Jul 23, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    I love this lesson, and have used it often, but I am really struggling to explain when we can use “to” with recommend and when we cannot. My intuition tellse me that we do not say, “I recommend you to walk on the left side of the road,” but instead “I recommend that you walk on the left side of the road.” Is the first one actually incorrect? My research seems to indicate that the first use emphasises the person who we think should complete the action rather than emphasizing the recommended action. Does that make sense?

    Thanks!
    Hannah

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 23, 2018 at 3:59 pm

      Hi Hannah,

      I’m glad you love the lesson! Great question. I did find a reference to “recommend someone to” in the online Oxford Dictionary, but it seems like it’s either used in the passive (e.g., You are strongly recommended to seek a second opinion) or archaic (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/recommend). Merriam-Webster doesn’t have a reference to this pattern at all, so it could be a bit of a North American English/British English difference as well. To me, being a North American English speaker, “recommend you to walk” sounds very wrong. (I also get asked about “recommend to you to walk,” which also sounds unnatural to me.)

      I tell my students that the verb that takes this pattern (with a direct object that’s a person) naturally is “advise,” not “recommend.” The following sentences are correct and sound natural:

      – I recommend that you walk on the left side of the road.
      – I recommend you walk on the left side of the road. (“that” is dropped)
      – I recommend walking on the left side of the road.

      – I suggest that you walk on the left side of the road.
      – I suggest you walk on the left side of the road. (“that” is dropped)
      – I suggest walking on the left side of the road.

      – I advise you to walk on the left side of the road.
      – I advise walking on the left side of the road.

      I’d be hesitant about teaching “recommend you to + V” at all because it’s a common error that students already make and really doesn’t sound natural with a direct object that’s a person.

      Reply

  3. shaghayeghgharedaghi9@gmail.com'

    Shaghayegh says:

    Apr 21, 2017 at 5:04 am

    Thank you for your teaching to us it was very help full ..I love you

    Reply

  4. shephard.mn@wanadoo.fr'

    Meg Shephard says:

    Jul 17, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Thank you for this clear explanation. It’s very useful! Will the worksheet on the subjunctive be comming soon?
    Many thanks.

    Reply

  5. celiaporto@uol.com.br'

    celia porto says:

    Nov 03, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Hi Tanya

    I have been making use of the lessons and I really appreciate the way you deal with grammar. However, I am involved with the preparation of TOEFL and TOEIC students so I really need exercises on subjunctive, conditionals and wish. What can you do to help me?
    Best
    Celia

    Reply

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