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A Review of THE SUBJUNCTIVE TENSES in English

Module by: Nguyen Huu Hieu. E-mail the author

Summary: The subjunctive consists of three tenses: The Present Subjunctive The Past Subjunctive The Perfect Subjunctive Generally, these tenses are used for dreams, wishes and hypotheses, or unreal actions, in the reality in the past, present and future.

THE PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE

Form:

Conjugated with the verb in the same form as the bare infinitive for all persons. Negative: “not + Verb”. No interrogative.

Example:

It would be good that he come on time. (not: comes)

(= I do wish him to come on time.)

Usage:

to express prayers or wishes about the present or future, very often involving supernatural powers. “May” can also be used.

Example:

God save our souls! /

Long live His Majesty! /

May your wish come true soon!

May you be happy forever!

in a clause after “It + be + adj + that-clause” or “S + Verb of personal ideas or willsSome of these verbs are suggest, recommend, order, beg, demand, urge, force, advise, insist, repuire, request,… + that-clause” to express a personal wish about something the speakers can’t decide on.

Example:

It’s advisable that you practise English regularly.

It’s urged that more attention be paid to the problem of traffic jams.

I suggest that our director reform his management mechanism the sooner the better.

I strongly advise that you be really prudent in solving this problem.

  • An alternative is preferred with “should” in the subjunctive clause.

Example:

  • It’s advisable that you should practise English regularly.
  • I suggest that our director should reform his management mechanism the sooner the better.

THE PAST SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE

Form:

Similar to the simple past, only that the verb “be” becomes “were” for all persons.

Usage:

This tense is used

for hypotheses about the present or future; therefore, it is used in hypothetical conditionals to express dreams, suppositions or unreal conditions in the present or future.

Example:

  • If I were a millionaire, I would give away a lot of money to help the poor.
  • If the earth stopped spinning, everything would be blown into the outer space.

for wishes which can hardly come true in the present or future

Example:

  • He won’t be able to come to the party tomorrow. If only he could come to the party then.
  • Now that there are wars in many places in the world. I wish there were no more wars anywhere in the world.

in a clause after “would rather” or “would sooner” to express preferences in the present.

Example:

  • I don’t like to write to him, I would rather (that) you did it.
  • I’d rather you delivered the cargo next Friday.

in a clause after “It’s (about/high) time”

Example:

  • It’s eight o’clock now. It’s high time we left.
  • The examination is coming. It’s time we went over our lessons.

The verb “be” may become “was” in spoken language when the subject is “I”, “he”, “she” or “it”.

Example:

It’s time she was here now. Why hasn’t she come yet?

in a clause after “as though” or “as if” to express unreality, improbability or doubt supposedly at the time of the action expressed in the main clause.

Example:

  • He behaves as if he owned the place.

(But he really doesn’t own it, or we don’t think he owns it)

  • He talks as though he knew where she was.

(But he doesn’t know, or we don’t think he knows, where she was)

The verb preceding as if/ as though can be put into a past tense without changing the tense of the subjunctive.

Example: He talks / talked as if he knew where she was.

He looks/looked as if he were deep in trouble.

THE PERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE

Form:

Similar to the past perfect, i.e. Had + Past Participle

Usage:

This tense is used

to express hypotheses about past actions (unreal conditions in the past)

Example:

If I had got up early yesterday, I would not have missed the bus.

(In fact, I did not get up early, and I missed the bus.)

in a clause after “as if/as though” to express unreality, improbability or doubt supposedly before the time of the action expressed in the main clause.

Example:

He looks/ looked as if he had seen the ghost.

(In fact, he didn’t see any ghost.)

USES of “WISH” and “IT’S (high / about) TIME”

Wish

To express desires or wishes about things contrary to fact or hardly coming true.

Subject 1 + Wish + (that) + Subject2 + Could

Would + bare inf.

Were + Verb – ing

Example:

  • We wish that they could come now (They can’t come indeed)
  • We wish that you would stop saying that. (You probably won’t stop saying that.)
  • She wishes that she were coming with us (She is not coming with us)

To express wishes about unreal or hypothetical present actions

Subject + Wish + (that) + Subject + Past Subjunctive

Example:

  • I wish that I had enough time to finish my homework (I don’t have enough time.)
  • We wish that he were old enough to come with us. (He is not old enough.)
  • They wish that they didn’t have to go to class today. (They have to go to class.)

To express wishes about the past (contrary to the reality)

Subject + Wish + (that) + Subject + Perfect Subjunctive

Could have + Past Participle

Example:

  • I wish that I had washed the clothes yesterday. (In fact, I didn’t wash them.)
  • She wishes that she could have been there then. (In fact, she couldn’t be there.)
  • We wish that we had had more time last night. (In fact, we didn’t have more time.)

It’s (about) time

When we personally suggest that someone should do something right away, we can use this pattern.

It’s (about) time + that-clause in the past subjunctive tense

(The past subjunctive is similar in form to the simple past, except that the verb ‘be’ is formally “were” for all persons and that it only expresses hypotheses about the present or future.)

Example:

  • It’s (about) time we went.

(I think it’s time for us to go.)

  • It’s (about) time he kept his way straight.

(We think it’s time for him to keep his way straight.)

  • If we emphasize that our suggestion should be done immediately without delay, we use “It’s high time”.

Example:

It’s high time we left for the station.

(I really am afraid that we’ll miss it if we don’t hurry.)

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