*The Optional Subjunctive

A sentence I heard on the radio recently was a perfect example of how you don’t have to use the subjunctive if you don’t want to. Unfortunately, I forgot it. But it was something like: “It’s crucial that he goes to college.”

One letter, the “s” at the end of “goes,” makes that sentence not subjunctive, even though saying “it’s crucial” is a classic indicator of a sentence in the subjunctive mood. Had the speaker said, “It’s crucial that he go,” that would have been subjunctive. But because he said “goes,” it was not.

One of the most interesting things about the subjunctive is that, of all the books that discuss and explain it, I don’t know of any that say you must or even should use it. All the discussion out there is about how to use it and when to use it, conspicuously absent of words like “should.” Books and experts just sort of talk about the subjunctive as if it’s required, without ever saying that it is.

So you can’t, technically, say it’s wrong to opt for “It's crucial he goes” over the more proper subjunctive “It's crucial he go.”

Personally, I’d prefer the subjunctive in this case. Here, long form, is how to use the subjunctive. The short version goes as follows:

The subjunctive occurs in statements contrary to fact: wishes, suppositions, demands, commands, and statements of necessity like “it’s crucial that.”

In those sentences, you can just use the base form of the verb, like “go,” instead of an inflected form, like “goes.”

In the past tense, the subjunctive applies only to the verb “be.” Its form is “were.” So in the past tense, be can become was, as in “I was going.” But if you put this as a statement contrary to fact, like a wish, you’d use the subjunctive “were”: I wish I were going.

Or not. It’s up to you.

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