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If I were you, and other expressions contrary to fact

In my work as an editor, I’ve noticed otherwise good writers avoiding ideas that express the subjunctive mood of the verb were. Perhaps it’s because of confusion over subject and verb agreement, number, passive constructions, or any number of reasons. I can empathize. Each time I read a sentence with a singular subject attached to the verb were, I have to stop reading and check its accuracy. Chicago Manual of Style best defines the subjunctive mood as “expressing an action or state of being not as a reality but as a mental conception, a condition that is doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional or otherwise contrary to fact.” The following examples show the subjunctive mood in three of its (six) contexts. I’ll tackle the other three in another post. And be aware that grammar checkers may mark most instances of subjunctive mood for correction. Trust your writing, not grammar checkers.

Expressing conditions contrary to fact
A perfect example of the subjunctive mood is expressed in a famous first line of a poem by François Villon, “If I were King and you were Queen.” Anyone living in the fifteenth century (when the poem was written) knew that, in reality, only a few of those born to royalty became kings or queens. It wasn’t a position just anyone could apply for.

Later, playwright Justin Huntly McCarthy expands on Villon’s poetic desire (play and movie) in grandiose terms not rooted in everyday life.

If I were king--ah love, if I were king! / What tributary nations would I bring / . . . / Beneath your feet what treasures I would fling:-- / The stars should be your pearls upon a string /

Expressing suppositions contrary to evidence
M-W Dictionary defines supposition as the “mental act of supposing something to be the case, or ideas that result from supposing, especially as opposed to ideas based on evidence.” In the following example, the singular subject (soldier) takes the verb’s subjunctive (were):

• “The fingers of his right hand remained half curled even when empty, as though the soldier were unable to relinquish his sword’s haft.” (The Centurion’s Wife, Bunn, Oke) [Not was unable.]

Even multi-published fiction writers sometimes fail to use the subjunctive mood. I love Bodie and Brock Thoene’s novels, but the following sentence (if we apply the definition supplied by CMOS) while presenting the Countess’s state of being in “doubtful, imagined, or conditional” terms, fails to use the subjunctive mood:

• “Looking at the world with infinite weariness, she pivoted her head slightly, as though she was only vaguely aware of Josie’s presence.” (Twilight of Courage)

• “Looking at the world with infinite weariness, she pivoted her head slightly, as though she [were] only vaguely aware of Josie’s presence.” [subjunctive mood]

Expressing wishes contrary to reality
Sentences beginning with “I wish that I were able” express a wish that is opposite of reality or of what the writer believes that he or she can do.

• “I wish that I were able to direct the hearts and minds of all to You and, together with them and for them, love You perfectly in return . . .”—Communion prayer at

More familiar expressions using the subjunctive mood
“As you were, soldier,” said the sergeant.
“Long live the king,” shouted the group.
“Be that as it may,” said Mrs. Thompson, “we will continue with our plans.”
“Would that it were true,” said the poet.
“Be they rich or poor, young or old,” he said.

For more on the subjunctive mood, see Garner’s Modern American Usage, CMOS, The Little. Brown Handbook, or at

Vicki McCollum (c) 2010


DMWEBB said...

I find it interesting that I found your blog through the first time orient email loop. For years, I had thought I was writing wrong and that I had forgotten what was taught to me through my literature classes. I can see now that I was always right about the "were" and the "be". It makes the writing sound more literary than "pulp" or "pop". Thank you for the refresher course.

Vicki McCollum said...

Thanks for stopping by. Glad my blog was helpful. I hope we run into each other at the ACFW conference.