The Subjunctive Mood of Verbs in Main Clauses

Modern English has mostly lost its subjunctive forms, and uses modal auxiliaries instead (might, should etc.). Generally speaking, the subjunctive is used rather more in American English than in British English. It is rarely acknowledged in the teaching of English grammar in schools in English-speaking countries, nor is it usually discussed as such by native speakers of English teaching “English as a Second Language”. The Latin subjunctive is therefore initially alien to speakers of English in a way in which it is not to speakers of many other languages (e.g. the Romance languages, German), since they use that mood frequently in their own language (and are taught it as part of their instruction in English grammar). Teachers of languages which employ the subjunctive spend an unusually long time teaching it to native speakers of English.

The term “subjunctive” is derived from subiungere “to subjoin”, “make subordinate”. (The subjunctive is also called the coniunctivus [from coniungere “to conjoin], a term which does not indicate the mood’s generally subordinate role, that is to say, its use in dependent clauses which are not grammatically complete without reference to a main clause.) By contrast, the derivation of “indicative” from indicare “give information” and “imperative” from imperare “give a command” points to the more assertive function of those moods. In German, the indicative is sometimes called the Wirklichkeitsform, the “Reality form”, the subjunctive the Möglichkeitsform, the “Possibility form”.

Unlike many languages, Latin does not have any specific “conditional” tenses. In some languages, the choice between the indicative or the subjunctive mood often reflects particular nuances in the speaker’s perspective, a subtlety which can be very difficult for foreigners to master; in Latin, the choice of mood is almost always determined by well-defined grammatical rules rather than by the speaker’s perspective and opinion.

“Mood” is derived from modus -i masc. 2 “manner”, signifying the speaker’s perspective on a situation. This concept is of only limited relevance for distinguishing between the indicative and the subjunctive in Latin, in which mood is not often used to express opinion. (In the sense “frame of mind”, “mood” has a quite different, Germanic, origin.)

A periphrastic type of future active subjunctive is formed by using the future active participle in combination with subjunctive forms of esse as auxiliary verbs: e.g. amaturus sim, amaturus essem, giving the sense “I am/was going to love”. For more on such forms, see Chapter 25 (indirect questions).

Most forms of the present subjunctive, both active and passive, have a considerable affinity with future indicative forms (of the third, fourth and third i-stem conjugations). This affinity is not accidental: the future indicative evolved from the present subjunctive.

So close are the similarities between the perfect subjunctive active and the future perfect indicative active that ancient grammarians did not even recognize the existence of the latter tense. Priscian goes so far as to attempt to explain the absence of the future perfect indicative in Latin by asserting, with a magnificent lack of logic, that the Romans were too aware of the uncertainty of the future to try to set a limit to it (i.e. by referring to a time when an event which has not yet occurred will be in the past); he compiled a compendious and highly influential Latin grammar for Greek speakers at the beginning of the 6th century, and should have known better, especially since Greek itself has an (admittedly not frequently used) future perfect indicative. The future perfect indicative active continued to be largely ignored in Latin grammars written in English-speaking countries until the 18th century.

Exhortations are also known as jussive (from iubere, “to order”) main clauses. Similarly, the potential subjunctive is also known as the hypothetical subjunctive.

Since the thought-process in a potential main clause can be supplemented by an “if”-clause (see the parentheses after the examples), it is clear that such a clause is equivalent to the apodosis of a conditional sentence; for conditional sentences, see Chapter 27.