Several times over the course of the past few months, I have been asked about the verbs "was" and "were," and how a writer can tell which one to use in a particular situation, so let's clear that up. Today, let's discuss the subjunctive mood.
Before the days of emoticons, and the various and interesting combinations of typed punctuation }:-D writers had to be creative in their approach to conveying mood in their words. Sure, regular old verbs and adverbs could have done it (I really, super hate emoticons), but what about the careful writer who didn't want to frill up their prose with frivolous words? How could that selective writer convey the emotions of the thinker?
Well, that writer could choose a verb in the subjunctive.
Have you ever been confused about whether you should write, "I wish I was home right now," or "I wish I were home right now"? How can you decide?
When used in this way, the verb "were" is in the subjunctive mood. It indicates a certain whimsy, a dream-like fancy. By using it in the question above, we are indicating that what we've said is not actually going to happen, though we wish it would.
There are a few words in that sentence that tell you that you need the subjunctive mood. "I wish," is a pretty clear indicator that this is not a literal happening. Sometimes, the word "if" precedes the subjunctive, too. "I'd be able to pick that apple if I were six feet tall."
Here's a quote from Romeo and Juliet, where Shakespeare, in all his infinite wisdom, evokes the subjunctive mood. During the famous balcony scene in which Romeo engages in a spot of peeping Tomary, he says, "See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!" *Sigh* Wherefore art thou, Romeo?
Though it is not always the case, another indicator is the use of future tense. For example, "If he were to come over, I would be happy" suggests that the speaker is wishing for something that may or may not happen--the speaker doesn't know for sure if her friend will come over. These dreamy passages are the instances in which you need to use the subjunctive mood.
But "were" is not the only verb that can be used in the subjunctive. "Be" is another verb that can be made more literary and emotional. For example, I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "be that as it may," which uses "be" in its subjunctive form. (Here's another example: "The King be damned!")
Additionally, the subjunctive form of "be" is often needed in "that" clauses which follow verbs of command, demand, suggestion, recommendation, request, or necessity. "His mother asked that he be excused from class."
So the next time you write a sentence in which you wish to evoke a dream-like or wishful tone, put away those horrible emoticons, and show your literary skill. Hey, if it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for me.