Subjunctive in English

Have any of your students ever stumped you with a question about grammar?

In a recent class, a student asked me why the verb could be either “was” or “were” and I couldn’t give a straightforward answer! Her questions caught me off guard. I knew both were correct, but couldn’t say why.

If I were to hypothesize, I’d say this has happened to all of us. Why? Because we learn grammar inductively in our native language. As we grow up it is necessary that we understand grammar from context without explicit rules. (Whether or not we demand that second language learners learn grammar like this is a topic for another discussion!)

But back to the subjunctive. For whatever reason, I never learned the rules. I even managed to avoid it in my teacher training.

But I can and do use the subjunctive! I was familiar with it despite not knowing the rules. In fact, I’ve used it three times already in this post. Can you find the subjunctives?

It was a joyous “aha” moment when I figured out, thanks to my ELT Springboard colleagues at our last get together, that “were” is used because it’s subjunctive! After some research and study, I now feel confident that I can answer my students’ questions, if they were to come up.   😉

I found this website to be helpful:

http://grammarist.com/grammar/subjunctive-mood/

This quote is from that site. And doesn’t it ring true?

“If you’re confused by the subjunctive mood, don’t worry too much. As with all grammar and usage matters, the rules for subjunctive mood are based on centuries of convention. There’s no deeper reason; it just is what it is. But the subjunctive mood is useful, and it would be a shame if it were to go away.”

If you know something more about subjunctive in English or know of good resources, comment below!

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