“If I were you…” – the subjunctive mood

Many people seem to worry about the subjunctive. But you really don’t need to. I’ll tell you why later on, but for the moment let’s have a look at what the subjunctive is.

Consider the following sentences:

“If I were you I wouldn’t buy that.”
“If I were you I’d drive instead of taking the bus.”

The phrase “If I were you…” is perhaps the most common example of the subjunctive mood in English – where the verb “were” is the past subjunctive form of the verb “to be”.

You might expect the phrase to be “If I was you…”; however, this in incorrect – in standard English it must be “were”.

The past subjunctive is used to refer to unreal/counterfactual situations in present time. Here are some more examples:

If it were not for the rain, we could have a picnic. (but it is raining, so we can’t.)

This may be replaced by a second conditional: If it was not raining, we could have a picnic.

I wish that I were a mermaid. (but obviously I am not)

Here the past subjunctive occurs in a that-clause following the word “wish”. This is another common usage.

The present subjunctive also occurs in that-clauses and is used to refer to something desired, demanded, recommended or necessary. The present subjunctive is the same as the infinitive of a verb without “to”:

He insisted that we be on time.
They requested that she bring a photo ID.
We recommend that the agreement be changed. (passive)
She suggested that the client come to a meeting next week.
The Sellers require that the Purchaser deliver the complete documentation before closing.

Usage

You don’t really need to worry about the subjunctive because about 99% of the time it’s not necessary to use it. In all the examples I’ve given above, except “If I were you…” it would be acceptable to use the indicative verb form (i.e. the form you might expect):

If it was not for the rain, we could have a picnic.
I wish that I was a mermaid.
He insisted that we are on time.
They requested that she brings a photo ID.
We recommend that the agreement is changed.
She suggested that the client comes to a meeting next week.
The Sellers require that the Purchaser delivers the complete documentation before closing.

 The subjunctive is gradually disappearing from everyday English. However, it remains common in formal language and literature.

I would suggest that in most situations it is unnecessary to use it in business English; however, you may come across it, particularly in legal writing.

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One Response to “If I were you…” – the subjunctive mood

  1. Joy Brodier says:

    Very good article, very clear.
    Joy Brodier English teacher to business students in France

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