21) Mood in verbs

Mood in verbs

Verbs can be broken down into 3 different moods: indicative, imperative and subjunctive. They tell us something about the meaning of the sentence.

1) Indicative mood

Sentences in the indicative verb mood either ask a question, or make a statement. Both of these functions can be related to some form of indication: asking a question is fishing for something to be indicated (the answer), while making a statement is a clear indication of something. But doesn’t that cover the majority of the English language? Well, yes, it does actually, and, therefore, most of the time the verb, and the sentence, or clause, is in the indicative mood. Let’s look at some examples of statements and questions together:

Statement: I am a human.

Question: Are you a human?

 

Statement: You are always moaning.

Question: Why are you always moaning?

 

Statement: Amy loves reading.

Question: Does Amy love reading?

By looking at these sentences in pairs like this we can see that statements and questions are related to each other: the question asks for an indication of something, and the statement gives that indication.

2) Imperative mood

The imperative mood of the verb is one where the sentence makes a command, or a request. This relates to the definition of ‘imperative’ which can be ‘a command’ or ‘something that demands attention or action; an unavoidable obligation or requirement; necessity’. Let’s look at some examples of commands and requests:

Request: Please stop talking.

Command: Stop talking!

In essence, the request is really just a command, but said more nicely, and also perhaps with less expectation that it will come true. Notice how neither of these are a statement or a question (which would be the indicative mood).

The subject of the sentence is usually an implied ‘you’ as the request, or command, is being directed at someone. So it is like it is saying:

Request: (you) Please stop talking.

Command: (you) Stop talking!

3) Subjunctive mood

The subjunctive mood relates to situations which are hypothetical, as well as those which are in some other way not a factual statement, such as a wish, something imagined, a desire or a suggestion. This definition doesn’t cover all of the different uses, so I think the best way to show the subjunctive mood is to look at the constructions that it is commonly used in. The first is the use of the past tense verb ‘were’.

3.1 Use of ‘were’ in the subjunctive mood

Here is a reference table showing the way past tense verbs ‘was’ and ‘were’ are usually used outside of subjunctive sentences

  Singular Plural
First person I was happy. We were happy.
Second person You were happy. You were happy.
Third person He was happy. They were happy.

Seeing as most sentences are indicative, let’s compare indicative and subjunctive. One word which is commonly used in indicative sentences is ‘were’ – one of the the simple past tense versions of the verb ‘be’, along with ‘was’, as can be seen in the above reference table. The rule goes that if the sentence is subjunctive, the choice of simple past tense verb should be ‘were’ over ‘was’. Now, ‘were’ can also be used in indicative sentences, such as:

No people were injured in the accident.

This is because ‘were’ is actually the plural form of ‘was’; therefore, you couldn’t say:

No people was injured in the accident. (incorrect)

because ‘people’ is plural.

‘Were’ is also used for both singular and plural in the second person. So it would be:

You were very funny yesterday. (correct)

not

You was very funny yesterday. (incorrect)

This is because the personal pronoun ‘you’ is used for both singular and plural subjects. For example, the ‘you’ above could be talking to a single person or a group of people.

We can also see in the above table that the third person singular uses ‘was’ and the third person plural uses ‘were’.

Now we have seen the way ‘were’ acts outside of subjunctive sentences, let’s start looking at it within them. We will start with hypothetical sentences first.

Hypothetical sentences

‘Were’, rather than ‘was’, is used in hypothetical sentences because they are in the subjunctive mood. For example, it is:

If she were to slip and fall, I would feel awful. (correct)

not

If she was to slip and fall, I would feel awful. (incorrect)

Hypothetical sentences are expressions which ask ‘let’s suppose this were true’ (check out this Pink Floyd song, entitled ‘If’, for many examples). They come under the subjunctive mood because they are not proposed as fact. Often, they will be used for thought experiments, to imagine something for the sake of argument. As previously mentioned, the correct simple past tense verb to use here would be ‘were’. Do you see much difference between the two above sentences? The point of the subjunctive mood is to express a situation that is not a factual statement. It uses a word to differentiate between statements that are more based in fact, and those that aren’t. As an example of the differences between the indicative and subjunctive statements, look at two similar ones next to each other:

Indicative: ‘I feel awful when my daughter falls over’.

Subjunctive: If she were to slip and fall, I would feel awful.

These two have very similar meanings, but different moods. Notice how in the indicative it implies his daughter has fallen over before, and he felt awful. It is much more direct, concrete and factual. In contrast, the subjunctive is an imaginary, hypothetical situation, and there is no indication that this event has actually happened before. We can also compare ‘was’ and ‘were’ here, with a similar indicative / subjunctive comparison:

Indicative: ‘It was awful when my daughter fell over.’

Subjunctive: ‘If she were to slip and fall, I would feel awful.’

Also note how it would be wrong to say:

It were awful when my daughter fell over. (incorrect)

because this is an indicative statement and, therefore, not in the subjunctive mood.

Actually, the above is also wrong because, as we saw in the reference table, we use ‘was’ for the third person singular, which this is an example of, even when the sentence is not subjunctive. So the two interesting examples where we use ‘were’ when it is subjunctive, but ‘was’ when it is not, are in the first person singular, and the third person singular. 

A first person singular example in the subjunctive as a hypothetical is:

If I were to win the lottery, I would be in shock.

A first person singular sentence not in the subjunctive would use ‘was’, as in:

I was shocked when I won the lottery.

A third person singular example in the subjunctive as a hypothetical is:

If she were to slip and fall, I would feel awful.

A third person singular sentence not in the subjunctive would use ‘was’, as in:

He was upset about her falling over.

Wishes

Wishes also come under the subjunctive mood. For example, it is:

I wish I were more confident. (correct)

not

I wish I was more confident. (incorrect)

In this sentence the writer is expressing a wish; therefore, this is not a factual statement, but a desired situation. This means it is part of the subjunctive mood, meaning the correct term is ‘were’ not ‘was.’ As an example of the differences between indicative and subjunctive, see here:

Indicative: ‘Confidence is very important to me.’

Subjunctive: ‘I wish I were more confident.’

Note how the indicative is talking about a concrete statement, while the subjunctive is talking about something the writer wishes were a concrete statement.

Again, the two interesting examples where we use ‘were’ when it is subjunctive, but ‘was’ when it is not, are in the first person singular, and the third person singular. 

A first person singular example in the subjunctive as a wish is:

I wish I were rich. 

A first person singular sentence not in the subjunctive would use ‘was’, as in:

I was rich before I lost it all.

A third person singular example in the subjunctive as a wish is:

He wishes he were rich. 

A third person singular sentence not in the subjunctive would use ‘was’, as in:

He was rich before he lost it all.

There are other changes that occur in the subjunctive mood: namely, ‘am/is/are’ being replaced by ‘be’. Let’s look at that next.

3.2 ‘Am/are/is’ replaced by ‘be’

Another change seen with the subjunctive mood is the replacement of ‘am/are/is’ with ‘be’. Recommendations, or suggestions, can also be within the subjunctive mood. Let’s combine these two ideas with an example:

I recommend he is removed. (incorrect)

becomes

I recommend he be removed. (correct)

Here is a a similar example comparing indicative and subjunctive and showing ‘am’ replaced with ‘be’ in the subjunctive mood.

Indicative: ‘I am going to remove him.’

Subjunctive: ‘I recommend he be removed.’

Notice how the indicative example is a statement perceived as fact, while the subjunctive is only a recommendation. Similarly, replacing ‘recommend’ with ‘suggest’ would also be in the subjunctive mood, as in:

I suggest he be removed.

You might think that some of these don’t sound correct; that is probably because the subjunctive mood is less popular nowadays. Isn’t it fascinating how language changes over time? Here is a question for you: what brings about this change? Is it done on purpose, perhaps by people in influential positions, then everyone else follows? Or is it something that happens without anyone thinking about it? Or perhaps it is both: influential people begin the process, then the rest follow without really thinking about it.

3) Questions

1) What is the indicative mood?

2) What is the imperative mood?

3) What is the subjunctive mood?

That is all for moods; let’s move on to voice in verbs, next.

NEXT: 22) Voice in verbs

Posted in English Grammar