Structures: The Subjunctive (IELTS, TOEFL Writing)

The subjunctive voice appears in a few forms:

Ex: It is important that all participants be on time in order for us to complete all of our goals in a timely fashion.

The doctor recommended (that) Simon be treated as soon as possible.

Frank wishes (that) he were better prepared for the task.

If I were you, I’d have a professional look at it.

You will notice that the structures can be presented in two categories: those that include a noun clause beginning with that, and hypothetical structures (wish/if).

Let’s begin with the noun clause structures. The most important feature of this structure to keep in mind is that the main verb in the noun clause is a base verb, i.e., an untensed verb.

Generally, a main verb in a clause always takes the tense for the clause and/or sentence. In the subjunctive structure this rule is not valid.

Ex: The doctor recommended (that) Simon be treated as soon as possible.

The doctor further recommended (that) he check into the hospital.

The doctor recommended (that) Simon’s wife come to the hospital to fill out the necessary forms.

In each of these examples, the main verb in the noun clause is a base verb (be, check into, come). Even though the subject of the clause is a singular, third person noun, the verb does not change (is, checks into, comes).

The subjunctive with a noun clause may use a particular set of verbs or adjectives. The verbs most commonly used with the subjunctive:

Recommend, advise, suggest, propose, request, insist, ask, decide, require. Other verbs may be used. Regardless of the verb, however, the structure will appear the same (sub. + verb + that clause). The thing to recognize is that the verb is usually one of a statement, suggestion, or command to someone else.

Ex: Due to the poor weather, the minister suggested (that) the ceremony be held indoors rather than in the yard. (Notice that we can use the subjunctive in conjunction with a passive voice).

In an effort to further reduce costs and thus increase profitability, the Board of Directors proposed that the company’s manufacturing operations relocate to developing markets, where labour is cheaper.

The artist asked his students that they not attend the exhibition in protest of the corporate sponsorship that had overtaken the funding of the event. (Notice that we can have a negative subjunctive voice. We simply add not before the base verb.)

Some English users like to add should in the subjunctive voice (The doctor recommended that Simon should seek treatment as soon as possible.). This is a personal choice, though we will mention that the should is unnecessary and therefore redundant).

The adjectives most commonly used with the subjunctive:

advisable, critical, desirable, essential, fitting, imperative, important, necessary, vital. Again, there are others, though the structures will appear in a similar form (It is + adjective + that clause). Unlike the usage with verbs, the adjective structures often omit the clause marker that.

Ex: It is important (that) she be alerted to recent developments.

It is only fitting that Henry not sit next to Jane. (With negative structures, leave in the clause marker that).

It is of the utmost importance (that) Mr. Kale receive the letter before his departure. (Notice that we change the adjective important to a noun importance. This is done in conjunction with the preposition of, and maintains the same meaning as important. Not all of the above adjectives have a noun form that can be used in this way.)

It is a good idea that she look for a new job.

Now let’s look at the hypothetical structures. A hypothetical situation is one that cannot happen, or is very unlikely to happen.

In these cases we use the verb wish to express a desire that will not likely be realized, or we use the if conditional clause to talk about a condition that is impossible or very unlikely to be met.

Ex: I wish I were taller.

If I were taller, I would play basketball.

In both of these examples, it is impossible for the subject to be taller. Therefore both examples express a hypothetical situation. The subjunctive, then, uses the were form of the be verb to indicate a subjunctive voice.

As was mentioned earlier, we can also use the modal verb should in subjunctive structures. In the hypothetical, this may appear as:

Ex: If he should require further assistance, please advise him that we are at his service.

Should Andrew feel the need to submit a formal complaint, he can do so at the administrator’s office on the third floor. (If Andrew should feel….—notice also the inversion in this example.

There a few set expressions that are technically in the subjunctive voice, though it would be more useful to simply remember them as they are and use them accordingly. Also keep in mind that these are somewhat formal and stylized expressions and better left alone if you are unsure of their usage:

Ex: I have been told the reason for your lateness. Be that as it may, you know our policy regarding punctuality, and we cannot make exceptions other than for medical emergencies.

You are certainly correct, but you are most definitely not right, as it were.

Alright boys, keep fighting, come what may.

Far be it from anyone to judge his intentions, but the result of his actions certainly do not leave him in a favorable position in the community.

I will help you, if need be, though I’d much rather remain uninvolved.

I won’t say anything about it for now. Suffice it to say I’m not pleased with the whole situation.