The subjunctive usually refers to things that have not happened yet, whether we really want them to happen (commands, wishes) or not (suppositions, conditional statements, fearing). The subjunctive appears in very specific contexts; we shall cover the most common ones, and some of the less common ones! Please note that the subjunctive on the GMAT is not common! If your Verbal scores are low, direct your studies toward:
- subject-verb agreement
- verb tense, comparisons
- parallelism (the GMAT loves parallelism so much, the two of them should get married)
The subjunctive exists in many languages, though other languages use it more than we do in English, where it’s a somewhat strange and slowly disappearing form.
What does it look like?
The present subjunctive looks exactly the same as both the imperative (used in direct orders, like Go home! or Be careful!) and the part of the infinitive that isn’t the word to (to sleep or to dream). Some call this the “plain form” of the verb, since it’s the same in all three settings (sit, merge, dig). It doesn’t get different endings for being in the past tense (like take vs. taken) or in the third person singular (I eat vs. she eats). Since Sentence Correction on the GMAT is completely dominated by third-person verbs (he/she/it jumps, they jump), the subjunctive will stand out more often:
Indicative (“normal”): She drives her truck to work.
Subjunctive: I suggested that she drive her truck to work.
It definitely stands out! You won’t be able to tell a friend “She drive her truck to work!” without your friend wondering whether you’ve been hit in the head too many times, because the subjunctive doesn’t live on its own, outside of a few set phrases that are basically fossils, remnants of a time when the subjunctive was more common in English (and we’ll cover those too). When you need a present subjunctive, think of how you would form the infinitive (to sing, to cut) and remove the to: that’s your present subjunctive (or “plain form”).
The past subjunctive looks the same as the normal (indicative) form, except in the verb to be.
The future subjunctive as it is traditionally taught looks different from the indicative and other subjunctives in all forms; some say that because it’s so different, we should call it something else and not the future subjunctive at all. I mention this because your understanding of how this works is deeply affected by the way you were taught (for most non-native speakers of English) or the fact that you weren’t taught it at all (for most native speakers); I didn’t learn about the subjunctive until I studied other languages! No matter how (or whether) you were taught the subjunctive, though, these are the forms you could see on the GMAT.
I’ve made this chart for your reference; I will include all of this information in every installment of this series so that you don’t have to refer back to this article:
I’ve highlighted the places where the subjunctive differs from the “normal” indicative. In the future tense, you see that I have “will/shall”; traditionally, “shall” is the simple first-person future form (I/we shall, but he/she/it/you/they will), though you are not likely to see it often in American English. “Shall” can still be used to show certainty or obligation (You shall not pass!), and also appears in legal language.
Where will I see it?
There are some common places the subjunctive can appear in English; we will be covering all of these in this series:
- wishes (I wish that I were able to drive a motorcycle or may the best man win)
- suppositions (If I were to go to the party, I wouldn’t finish painting the house)
- demands and commands (She demanded that he leave her house immediately)
- suggestions and proposals (I suggest that she think about it more)
- conditions contrary to fact (If I were master of the universe, college tuition would be free)
- statements of necessity (It’s necessary that they be there for your safety)
- fearing with lest (I filled her car with gas lest she run out on her cross-country trip)
- idiomatic phrases (As it were or be that as it may or . . . need only . . .)
A “supposition” (which is the noun form of “suppose”) is a sentence theorizing or guessing about possible outcomes of actions that haven’t happened yet, or options being considered. Suppositions are more common in spoken English than in written English, but the subjunctives are slowly being replaced by indicatives (which are normally used in factual conditions). Eventually the indicative forms will be correct formal English . . . but not in time for your GMAT Test Date:
-Supposition (subjunctive): If I were to be elected president, the first thing I would do is replace our complex income tax with a higher, but simpler, sales tax.
-Supposition (indicative, common in spoken English now, not correct on the GMAT): If I am elected president, the first thing I would do is replace our complex income tax with a higher, but simpler, sales tax.
-Compare those to a factual condition: If I am elected president, the first thing I will do is replace our complex income tax with a higher, but simpler, sales tax. It’s not “factual” in the sense that it has happened, but rather is as factual as a promise or a prediction (or a threat!).
A GMAT-style question:
After spending many long nights working late in his office, the architect thought that if he were to continue working so much he would lose both his sanity and his job, while if he stopped working so much he would at least have his sanity.
A. should he stop working working so much he should
B. should he stop working so much he would
C. if he were to stop working so much he should
D. should he were to stop working so much he should
E. if he were to stop working so much he would
Read Part 1: “Wishes” if you haven’t already and work out the problem. The answer to the question as written was C; replacing “wishes” with “wants” would make the correct answer E.
Answer for this one: Next time, along with demands and commands!