Verbs: Part Five—Mood

The term mood, when applied to verbs, refers to the speaker’s or writer’s attitude toward the reality, potentiality, purpose, or effect of the action described by the verb. In English, the four moods are the indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and conditional. The conditional mood is sometimes regarded as a subset of the subjunctive.

The Indicative Mood

When the attitude of the writer is actual or factual, which is to say concerned only with conveying or requesting information or expressing opinions, the verb will be in the indicative mood. We spend most of our lives in the indicative mood. The sentences in this paragraph are in the indicative mood.

The indicative mood can be used with any tense of the verb. For instance, the following sentences are all in the indicative mood, even though they use different tenses.

I have about 30 books on that topic. (present tense)

Are you thinking of buying that refrigerator? (present progressive tense)

Your brother was a writer, wasn’t he? (past tense)

Sal and Thera were swimming all afternoon. (past progressive tense)

We ate at that restaurant last month. (past tense)

I have always enjoyed spending my summers on the lake. (present perfect tense)

Honestly, that idea had never occurred to me. (past perfect tense)

Can you tell me how to get to South Street? (present tense)

Will your brother spend time with us this Christmas? (future tense)

You’ll have finished that book in plenty of time for me to borrow it for my class. (future perfect tense)

The Imperative Mood

The imperative is used to express commands, requests, or desires. The best way to illustrate this mood is to play a little mind game.

Imagine you are the king or queen of a small country. Picture your castle peopled by eager servants and filled with wealth untold. Summon your page and direct him to bring your children to you. Look upon your children; tell them how important and fine and noble they appear. Urge them to maintain always their regal bearing, but remind them to mitigate their hauteur with human compassion. Oblige them to accept that their birth and breeding are privileges. Counsel them to understand their subjects. Help them to see the role of a monarch as serving the people, not the reverse.

The main verbs in this paragraph are all in the imperative mood. The subject of every main verb, as is usually the case with verbs in the imperative mood, is an implied You.

You should also notice that the imperative is used mostly with the present tense. You can’t order someone to do something in the past, of course, and while there are future commands (of the type: You will obey me!), they are rare now outside of movies involving Nazi Commandants.

Both the indicative and imperative moods are reality-based moods. They pertain to the here and now, and in the case of the indicative, to the actual past or the intended future. They contrast strongly with the subjunctive mood, which is the mood of unreality.

The Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood is the mood for expressing wishes and hopes, talking about imaginary or hypothetical situations, expressing preferences, and issuing indirect commands, suggestions, or requirements.

For instance, the following sentences use verbs (underlined) that are in the subjunctive mood:

I wish I were president.

If I were president, I’d end inequality in every sphere of human life.

I know what Theo would do if he were president. What would you do if you were president?

It is essential that the voices of parents be heard.

The committee suggested that the accountant prepare a detailed explanation of last quarter’s corporate expenditures.

The head nurse demanded that the police officer leave the patient’s room immediately.

Visible and invisible subjunctives. The subjunctive mood in English requires very few verb changes (i.e., inflections), which is lucky for us. In fact, of the seven true subjunctives sprinkled in the sentences above (i.e., those not using would), one of them requires no verb change at all: What would you do if you were president? This second-person subjunctive form is no different from the second-person indicative form: you were.

The other subjunctives in the sentences take a form that is different from the corresponding indicative form (I were, he were, voices be, accountant prepare, officer leave). These forms are “visible” subjunctives; i.e., they are distinguishable from their indicative counterparts (I was, he was, voices are, accountant prepares, officer leaves).

There are many “invisible” subjunctive forms in English hiding within seemingly indicative shapes. In fact, we often use the subjunctive without really knowing we’re doing so; it’s clearly quite possible to say, for instance, What would you do if you were me? without realizing that we have used the subjunctive mood (if you were me).

Formation. The universal way to form a subjunctive—in all persons of all verbs—is to use the base form of the verb (the first principal part, which is the infinitive without the word to). Let’s take a look at how this plays out in the formation of subjunctives across the three persons, focusing first on verbs other than to be.

First and second persons. In the first and second persons, singular and plural, of any verb other than to be, the subjunctive form (i.e., the base form of the verb) is indistinguishable from the corresponding indicative form—it is always an invisible subjunctive. Only the context—the implied or stated wish, hope, dream, imagining, preference, counsel, suggestion, or command—tells us that we are dealing with the subjunctive.

Consider these examples of invisible subjunctives across the three persons and both numbers of some common verbs:

Would you prefer that I go with you, or would you rather we both stay home?

Are you suggesting that we lie to the police?

I would suggest that you attend the concert with your daughter.

The judge has decreed that I appear before the magistrate at ten a.m.

My advice is that we accompany you to the courthouse.

I strongly suggest that you do the speaking.

Third person. In the third person singular and plural, the regular formation of the subjunctive (the base form of the verb) has a different effect in the singular and in the plural.

In the third person plural—the they form—the subjunctive of all verbs except to be is invisible: It is the same form as the indicative. But in the third person singular of these verbs, the subjunctive differs from the indicative because the subjunctive uses the base form, as it is supposed to do, while the indicative (as you may recall) uses the base form + s. Here are some examples of subjunctives in the third person, both visible and invisible:

The captain suggests that passengers remain in their seats with their seat belts fastened. [Third person plural: The subjunctive is invisible.]

The captain requests that passenger Morris return to his seat immediately. [Third person singular: The subjunctive differs from the indicative and is therefore visible.]

House rules require that audience members refrain from using their cell phones during the show. [Third person plural: The subjunctive is invisible.]

The management requests that no one photograph any portion of this presentation. [No one is third person singular, causing the subjunctive to be visible.]

The Verb To Be. The verb to be is slightly different. Across all persons and numbers, the subjunctive form is the base form of the verb, be, just as it’s supposed to be, but this form is always visible because it can never be indicative.

The boss strongly suggests that we be in attendance at the “voluntary” picnic.

The judge has decreed that I be at the magistrate’s office no later than ten a.m.

My advice is that you be at the courthouse one hour before the hearing.

I strongly suggest that he be the spokesperson.

The Court demands that members of the public be silent and respectful during the trial.

An endangered species? While subjunctive forms are far from extinct, they are probably on the path to extinction. It would not yet sound quite right to use the indicative forms in these sentences (i.e., The boss suggests that we are in attendance; It is decreed that I am; My advice is that you are; I strongly suggest that he is; The Court demands that they are), but speakers today are coming to use the conditional should in place of the actual subjunctive, as in:

The boss strongly suggests that we should be in attendance at the “voluntary” picnic.

It is decreed that I should be at the magistrate’s office no later than ten a.m.

My advice is that you should be at the courthouse one hour before the hearing.

I strongly suggest that he should be the spokesperson.

The Court demands that members of the public should be silent and respectful during the trial.

The Conditional Mood

Like the subjunctive mood, the conditional mood in English is a mood of possibility, unreality, wishing, and pretending. In contrast with other languages, which use inflected forms, English constructs its conditional verb forms with auxiliary verbs—almost always would, and sometimes might, should, could, can, and ought.

Unsurprisingly, conditionals are used very often in conditional sentences—that is, sentences comprising an if clause (a protasis) and a then clause (an apodosis). Within the sentence, the if clause—the condition—is the subordinate clause and the then clause—the result— is the main clause. Note that the then in what I have been calling “the then clause” is usually unexpressed, or understood.

Recall one of the sentences I used as an example of the subjunctive mood earlier, into which I have now inserted the usually unexpressed then:

If I were president, [then] I’d end inequality in every sphere of human life.

This is one type of conditional sentence, a counterfactual (or contrary-to-fact) sentence using the subjunctive mood of the verb to be in the if clause and the conditional mood of another verb in the then clause. It is called conditional precisely because the stated result (e.g., ending inequality) is conditional upon the truth of the if clause. In the case of a counterfactual sentence like this one, the condition is not met (I am not president) and therefore the result is unattained (i.e., imaginary): universal equality remains a dream.

Before we discuss the 4 + 1 types of conditional sentences that grammarians recognize, let’s take a look at how this sentence would be diagrammed.

 If I were president

Types of Conditionals: An Overview

In English, there are four basic types of conditional sentences, commonly (but mysteriously) numbered 0, 1, 2, and 3. The Zero Conditional is factual, Conditional I is predictive, and Conditionals II and III are hypothetical. A fifth type, the Mixed Conditional, combines elements of types II and III. The following table presents examples of sentences illustrating the basic types.

Conditional Table

The Zero Conditional

In the Zero Conditional, the action in both the protasis (the if clause) and the apodosis (the then clause) is generally in the present. The Zero Conditional is used for statements that the speaker or writer claims or believes to be factual, logical truths.

Conditional I

In Conditional I, the action in the protasis is generally in the present, and the action of the apodosis in the future. Conditional I is predictive: The writer or speaker expresses a prediction about the likely future result of performing the action in the if clause.

Conditional II

In Conditional II, the action in the protasis is expressed as a past tense, but refers to a usually unrealized present condition, and the action of the apodosis is in the present conditional.

This is an unusual set-up worth parsing in detail. The actions in If I spoke German or If I had a million dollars seem to be set in the past, but they really refer to a (nonexistent) state or condition in the present: If I spoke German now and If I had a million dollars now. But the speaker knows that these present conditions do not exist, and so Conditional II is hypothetical and counterfactual.

How subtle this is! The writer or speaker sets up a logical relation between a past event that did not happen, a present condition that does not exist, and an unrealized result that will not come to be. Conditional II expresses, usually with regret, a “prediction” about what might have been if only the condition in the if clause, which doesn’t exist because of a road not taken in the past, were true.

I believe that the past tense verbs in Conditional II (in this case, spoke and had) may be the traces of extinct subjunctive forms that would have existed as inflected forms if English had developed differently. (The preceding sentence, as we will now see, happens to be a Conditional III. It may also be hogwash because I am not a trained linguist; I merely play one in this blog.)

Conditional III

In Conditional III, the action of both the protasis and apodosis is in the past, but the action of the protasis refers to a time in the past prior to the time referred to in the apodosis. That is, one past action is “paster” than the other. The other characteristic of Conditional III sentences is that both clauses are hypothetical and counterfactual: Neither action happened.

For example, in the sentence If you had spoken up, I would never have married her, the speaking up would have had to have happened (but didn’t) before the marrying (which would then, it is claimed, not have happened). Similarly, in the sentence If Carlos had come, the party would have been more fun, Carlos’s coming would have had to have happened before the party became a total bore; since he never came, the party was a flop.

To express these hypothetical relationships, English puts the verb in the protasis in the past perfect and the verb in the apodosis in the past conditional (aka the conditional perfect).

The Mixed Conditional

The Mixed Conditional is a combination of Conditional II and Conditional III. Typically, the action in the protasis is in the past and the situation described in the apodosis is in the present, generally describing something that is not the case now. Thus, the Mixed Conditional is usually hypothetical and counterfactual. For example, If I had listened to you (in the past), I wouldn’t be in the trouble I’m in now (but I didn’t, and I am).

Here, in summary and in conclusion, is a chart of the characteristic attitude and usual progression of tenses in the basic types of conditional sentences.

Conditional Table 2

The next topic in our discussion of verbs will be voice.