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I brought the sentences from the speech about conversation tips.

They don’t just want to know about news and the weather.
They want to know about you.
So what are three things that you have going on right now, that you can talk about.
Whether it be school, whether it be a personal relationship, whether it be a hobby that you’re involved with.

My questions:

  1. What is the difference in nuance between 'whether it is' and 'whether it be'?

  2. Before posting this question, I googled, and some websites say 'whether it be' is subjunctive. I don't get why it is called 'subjunctive'. Because from what I know about subjunctive, it's supposed to be past of be verb.

  3. If I say 'whether it should be' or whether it would be', is the meaning same?

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Whether it be is subjunctive because it represents a conditional, as in the speaker does not know your life and what you will talk about. Whether is a conditional word so it causes the subjunctive form of verbs which tend to look the same as the infinitive form.

However, in common usage, whether it is is also acceptable. It is, however, not considered as formal. In truth, you can use the subjunctive or present form after whether and both will be understood.

i.e. "Whether it run fast or slow." and "whether it runs fast or slow."

The present tense form is, in my experience, more common.

It seems that the subjunctive is more common with very common verbs like be or go, as well as modals like can or shall.

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"Subjunctive" is a grammatical category which is quite important in various European languages, but is marginal in English, probably partly because in most cases it does not have a different form from the ordinary ('indicative') verb.

The most common survival (which you are probably referring to when you mention the past) is the use of the "past subjunctive" for counter-factual conditionals:

If I were a rich man, ...

but

If he was a rich man, ... (not counter-factual: the speaker doesn't know whether he was rich or not)

This has a distinct form for only one verb in the entire language, and then only in the first and third person singular: "I/she/he/it were" rather than "I/she/he/it/was". For any other verb, or any other person, it is indistinguishable from the ordinary (indicative) form:

If you were there, ...

If they wanted it, ...

both of which might be counter-factual or not.

The other remaining subjunctive is the present subjunctive, which is in every case identical to the base form (infinitive) of the verb; and so is distinct from the indicative only in the third person ("give" vs "gives") and in all persons of the verb "to be" ("be" vs "is/are/am"). The most common use of this is in demands and exhortations:

I insist that the committee discuss this!

This use is particularly common in political and organisational language, and more in American than in British English. Many people would use the indicative ("that the committee discusses this"), in ordinary speech.

The usage you are asking about is less common. I would say that anybody using it today is being deliberately archaic:

If it be ...

Whether it be ...

  • Maybe with "if it be", but "whether it be" is said often. I say it often that way. It just depends on my mood lol. I would never say "that the committee discusses this" when the subjunctive should be used. It would grate my ear. – Nick Nov 23 '17 at 1:00
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    Actually, I think more people would say "that the committee should discuss this". – Colin Fine Nov 24 '17 at 13:57
  • In England, probably, but in the United States, no, they would say it with the subjunctive. "I insist that I be in charge." "It's imperative that he go to Washington." "It's important that you not touch this." "I demand that he tell me." "My advice is that she teach herself how to spell those words." "It's better if he go alone." – Nick Nov 24 '17 at 17:49
  • I tend to catch myself using the subjunctive a little more than I consider normal for a Brit, Colin, but I'd normally use the indicative in OP's example: << So what are three things that you have going on right now, that you can talk about ... whether it's school, a personal relationship, or a hobby, for instance(?) >> I'd agree that the subjunctive often sounds archaic (or worse, grandiloquent), at least in the UK. But have you any supporting references (and yes, I realise that ELL is less exacting hereabouts), please? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 1 at 11:11

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