# Use of the subjunctive versus conditional mood

From my English classes I remember the rule that when you are expressing a condition with words like if, you must use the subjunctive mood in the subordinate clause, and the conditional in the main clause.

For example:

If I had more free time, I would go to the gym more often.

If I were you, I wouldn't pay too much attention to them.

The only exception to this rule (as far as I know) are polite requests like:

It would be nice if you would help me in the kitchen.

On the other hand, I recently found the following sentence in a book written by an American author:

If I would make a point of going to sit down with a historian, or a mathematician in order to broaden my mind, I'd be neglecting my job in a way.

In this case, both clauses are in the conditional but, according to the rules I have learnt in school, I would rather have written:

If I made a point of going to sit down with a historian ...

So I am a bit confused as to when one should use the subjunctive versus the conditional. Why does the author of the book write "If I would make a point of..."? Is there a difference in meaning or are "made" and "would make" interchangeable here?

(What confuses me even more is that I live in Germany where I often hear people using the conditional instead of the subjunctive when speaking in English, possibly because German has only the subjunctive / Konjunktiv mood: so it is difficult for me to tell if what I hear is a mistake or a proper use of the English conditional.)

• I answered a similar question once, about this if X would ..., Y would ... Check out my answer here: ell.stackexchange.com/a/14668/3281. Look for "262.1 would in both clause". Jan 2, 2014 at 11:59
• Thanks, do you mean that my example is an American usage and it has nothing to do with the cause-effect relation mentioned later in your answer (260.1)? Jan 2, 2014 at 12:18
• I believe that for If I would make a point ..., I'd be neglecting my job ..., 262.1 is enough. There seems to be no consequence from any event happened earlier. Jan 2, 2014 at 12:32
• So in this case the use of would is acceptable but only in informal American English. Jan 2, 2014 at 12:54
• I believe so. It should be fine in everyday speech, but you might want to avoid such a usage in your essays, theses, or any other kinds of formal writing. Jan 2, 2014 at 12:57

English does not have a subjunctive mood, nor a conditional mood.
Despite what you may have been told in school; if you've been misled, I'm sorry about that.

English does have a lot of modal auxiliaries, some of which have meanings (but not grammar)
that reminds scholars of some of the uses of subjunctive and conditional moods in
languages that have them, like Latin or Sanskrit.

But there is no subjunctive, no conditional, and no future tense in English. The constructions that are sometimes given these names are all uses of modal auxiliary verbs, with syntax to match.

This has been explained over and over again, but it's always surprising the first time.

Here are some answers to questions about the so-called "subjunctive" in English.
As you can see, it doesn't work quite the way you have been taught.

• I have trouble interpreting your first paragraph. Are you sorry about that fact despite that he has been told otherwise? Are those two facts contradictory? Have I missed something or am I just nitpicking? I am not quite sure what a semicolon means, so that might be what I'm missing. Dec 26, 2015 at 8:06
• This is 100% true and correct, but doesn't really help the OP determine whether the sentence he found is correct (in the "OK for a learner to imitate" sense). Dec 26, 2015 at 16:12
• In my view it is totally irrelvant whether the future or other tenses are formed with an ending or an auxiliary. The function is the same and it is practical to call the tense with will future. Dec 26, 2015 at 16:19
• Do you consider the Latin to have the perfect tense in passive when it actually uses just the participle and a form of sum? Jun 18, 2021 at 20:22

If I were you, I wouldn't pay too much attention to them.

openly fails to actually exemplify your hypothesis. The if clause reveals itself to be subjunctive, because the indicative first person past of "to be" is "I was". "I were" is subjunctive!

The would clause can also be considered a grammatical subjunctive.

The subjunctive expresses irrealis situations; both clauses are irrealis (about something which didn't happen).

"If I were you" is irrealis because "I am not you".

"I wouldn't pay too much attention to them" is also irrealis because it is conditional on something irrealis. (Whether or not I myself pay a lot of attention to them myself is irrelevant, because this clause is about imagining me to be you.)

• Is there really no grammatical distinction between "I were" (informal, "I was") and "I would ..."? I thought they were two different moods. Jul 29, 2014 at 16:30
• @Giorgio By "also be considered a grammatical subjunctive" I do not mean that there is no distinction between "I were" and "I would". They are different verbs, in different tenses (one is form of "is" and the other of "will") and not interchangeable.
– Kaz
Jul 30, 2014 at 0:37
• Again, I may be wrong, but I have been taught that "I was", "I were" and "I would be" are all forms of the same verb (to be) but in different moods. Apr 1, 2017 at 12:00

This sentence

If I would make a point of going to sit down with a historian, or a mathematician in order to broaden my mind, I'd be neglecting my job in a way.

is, strictly speaking, grammatically incorrect. It "should" be

If I made a point of going to sit down with a historian, or a mathematician in order to broaden my mind, I'd be neglecting my job in a way.

However, this "rule" is disappearing in casual spoken English, and the distinction seems to be moving into written language as well.

So if you want to speak correctly, then stick with the way you know how to do it. If you want to speak idiomatically, then both ways are acceptable (though what you saw in the author's sentence is definitely for casual speech).

As I was taught it, subjunctive is used when the information is contrary to fact:

If I were you, I would go to the picnic tomorrow.

Simple conditional is used when certain conditions apply

If it rains, I would not go to the picnic tomorrow.

Since the second example is not contrary to fact, you do not say:

If it were to rain...

When it's a hypothesis which contradicts the actual fact, you can't say that it's indicative.
Then what is it?

Wikipedia says:

In Modern English, the subjunctive form of a verb often looks identical to the indicative form, and thus subjunctives are not a very visible grammatical feature of English. (Wikipedia | English subjunctive)

However, they look like the indicative, nonetheless they are subjunctive. In fact they have the special verb form of back-shifted tense.

Michael Swan says in his Practical English Usage:

§567.1
Older English had subjunctives, but in modern English they have mostly been replaced by uses of should, would and other modal verbs, by special uses of past tenses, and by ordinary verb forms. English only has a few subjunctive forms left: (......)

Swan's might not be very clear, but he does NOT say English subjunctive mood has disappeared. He only says the forms have been replaced with others.

I find for the occasions we want to especially talk about the 'form,' it's needed to be called the subjunctive form.

What about the examples of plural sheep or the verbs like cut, put, let, etc?

Now I look up the word 'subjunctive' on The Free Dictionary.com, and it opens up a page with a special banner which tells us:

The subjunctive mood refers to verbs that are used to describe hypothetical or non-real actions, events, or situations. This is in comparison to the indicative mood, which is used to express factual, non-hypothetical information. (TheFreeDictionary.com | subjunctive)

What we learners need to know is of course not only the appearance but more importantly the meaning of it, and the term 'subjunctive mood' includes both the form and the meaning.