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Tuesday, 09 July 2019 18:38

Subjunctive Mood

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Matt, a student of ours in Beijing, China, was in one of his classes and asked this great question about this reading passage:


Why does the first paragraph have the word "were"? In China, the teachers tell us to use the word "are." Why is this?


That is a GREAT question! Matt is correct, in that we conjugate the present tense verb "to be" by: I am, You are, He/She/It is. In the PAST tense, it is I was, You were, He/She/It was. 

However, this is a special kind of English grammar called SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD. You usually use this when you want to say or write something that is not true, make-believe, hypothetical, a wish, or an impossible situation, or to make a suggestion. The word "If" is a common hint or sign to use the subjunctive mood. Look at these examples:


  • If I were a bird, I would fly away. (make-believe)
  • If you were the president, what would you do? (make-believe/hypothetical)
  • If I were to win a million dollars, I would take a big trip around the world. (hypothetical)
  • I wish I were in college again.... (a wish)
  • If I were you, I would look for another job. (suggestion)
  • I suggest he not smoke when he goes to meet his girlfriend's parents. (suggestion)


There is a beloved musical called Fiddler on the Roof, about a Jewish family in Czarist Russia. The poor farmer uses this grammar point when he sings one of the most famous songs from that show: If I were a Rich Man

(Note: the song is not If I WAS a Rich Man.)


Now, this photo is from a reading book we use at, and this passage is about the famous Botanical Garden near the U.S. Capitol Building. The opening sentence is a question:
What would you see if you were to go on a tour of the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C.?


In other words, the book is asking the reader, "IF you were to visit the Botanical Gardens, what would you see?" Probably most of the students reading this book do NOT live in or near Washington, so probably most children have never visited the Botanical Gardens, and probably never will. Most of the students who read this passage are in East Asia, some 8,000 miles away from D.C., so their chance of visiting that place is very small. So, the sentence uses the subjunctive mood. (However, is based in the US state of Virginia, and we are only about 4-5 hours' drive away from Washington, so come to the US with us and maybe you can visit the Botanical Garden and lots of other wonderful places too!)


There are some other times to use the subjunctive mood in English; please read the links below to find out more. 


Learn more:


Do you want to improve your English writing, vocabulary, and grammar skills? Join an online class with Find out more here. Contact Scott today to find out how!


Read 8665 times Last modified on Friday, 08 November 2019 19:45
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
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