The Subjunctive is a verb mood used in dependent clauses to express wishes, commands, emotion, possibility, judgement, necessity, or statements that are contrary to facts at present.
Basically we use the subjunctive to talk about events that we want to happen, we hope will happen, or we imagine happening.
If I Were vs If I Was
One of the most common usages of the subjunctive is like this (taken from the Beyoncé song):
If I were a boy… I’d roll out of bed in the morning…
If I were a boy, I think I could understand…
The (indisputable) fact is that Beyoncé is a woman so she is speculating here contrary to the facts and expressing wishes and possibilities.
On the other hand, Prince in 1987 sang:
If I was your girlfriend would you remember…
If I was your best friend would you let me take care of you…
Again this is speculation contrary to the facts but instead of were he uses was.
Some people look at if I was as wrong and less educated; but this is a matter of opinion and although if I were is more popular you do hear both forms around. For more on this, see below.
Common Subjunctive Verbs
Verbs that are commonly used with the subjunctive are: advise, ask, beg, decide, decree, desire, dictate, insist, intend, move, order, petition, propose, recommend, request, require, resolve, suggest, urge, and vote.
Here are couple of examples of the subjunctive in use:
I recommend you see a doctor right away.
We insist you stay the night.
The interesting point here is that the subjunctive has exactly the same form – in most cases – as a non-subjunctive verb. It is therefore indistinguishable from a non-subjunctive verb!
However, in a few cases the subjunctive form of the verb does differ from the non-subjunctive form.
Form of the Subjunctive
The subjunctive, then, is used in certain expressions and takes the same form as the infinitive without to (the bare infinitive). Only in a few cases is it different.
Third Person Singular, Present Form
In this case it does not take the final -s.
We insist he stay the night.
I recommend she see a doctor right away.
To Be, Present Tense
With the verb to be in the present tense, it does not change according to the person.
It is vital that you be present at the meeting.
They suggest we be extra vigilant throughout the night.
To Be, Past Simple, First Person Singular
In the 1st person singular & 3rd person singular of the verb to be in the past simple, we use were instead of was:
I wish I were rich!
Use of the Subjunctive
In the distant past with English and today in many foreign languages, the subjunctive form is obvious to see and can be identified easily. However in modern English since the subjunctive differs in form from a non-subjunctive verb in only a few cases, it is not always obvious we are using the subjunctive:
They wish they were rich.
This verb in the example above is no different from a non-subjunctive verb so is it subjunctive or not? Looking at the form of the verb it is impossible to tell.
This has led to the subjunctive being dropped in many cases. In spoken British English it has almost disappeared except in a few common phrases. In American English it is slightly more common but still only found in any number in formal texts.
Thus although in the past these would have used the subjunctive form, in modern English you are more likely to hear:
I wish I was rich!
We insist she stays.
and so on. They are not usually regarded as ungrammatical.
Should Teachers Teach the Subjunctive?
This is a good question and there is no definitive answer. Since there are probably far more important grammatical points your students need to learn, and since not knowing the subjunctive will barely impact their lives, and since many native speakers don’t use the subjunctive, it is perhaps not worth teaching.
Certainly some set phrases (see below) can be taught as idiomatic English but unless it arises in class and needs to be covered and explained for some specific reason, it is perhaps better to spend time on a more pressing issue.
Common Phrases using the Subjunctive
The subjunctive is found in these common phrases:
be that as it may
far be it from me
if it please the court
if need be
truth be told
God bless [you/her/him/us/them/every one]
come what may
perish the thought
God save [the Queen/the King/our merry band/David Beckham]
suffice it to say
long live [the bride and groom/the Queen]
Verbs in English Grammar – a general look at verbs in English