Moods of the Verb

Verb moods are classifications that indicate the attitude of the speaker. Verbs have three moods—indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.

Indicative and imperative moods

The indicative and the imperative moods are fairly common. You use the indicative mood in most statements and questions.

He walks every day after lunch.

Does he believe in the benefits of exercise?

You use the imperative in requests and commands. Imperative statements have an understood subject of “you” and therefore take second‐person verbs.

Sit down. ([ You] sit down.)

Please take a number. ([ You] please take a number.)

Subjunctive Mood

Verb tenses in the subjunctive mood are used in special kinds of statements. The most common use of the subjunctive mood is in contrary‐to‐fact or hypothetical statements. In your own writing, you must decide which statements should be in the subjunctive mood. If something is likely to happen, use the indicative. If something is hypothetical, or contrary to fact, use the subjunctive.

  • Present tense subjunctive

    • If I were king, you would be queen. (In the subjunctive, were is used for all persons.)

    • If he worked, he could earn high wages.

  • Past tense subjunctive

    • If I had been king, you would have been queen.

    • If he had worked, he could have earned high wages.

These contrary‐to‐fact statements have two clauses: the if clause and the consequences clause. The forms of the verbs in these clauses are different from those of verbs used in the indicative mood.

In the if clause, use the subjunctive. Table 1 shows how it is formed. Note that the subjunctive present tense is the same as the indicative past tense.

Table 1. Present Subjunctive

Verb to be: were

If I were king, If he were king.

Other verbs: worked

If I worked, If he worked.

Note in Table 2 how the subjunctive past tense is the same as the indicative past perfect tense.

Table 2. Past Subjunctive

Verb to be: had been

If I had been king, If he had been king.

Other verbs: had worked

If I had worked, If he had worked.

In the consequences clause, use the conditional (Tables 3 and 4), which is formed with could or would.

Table 3. Present Conditional

could, would + base form of verb

You would be queen.

He could earn high wages.

Table 4. Past Conditional

could, would + have + past participle of verb

You would have been queen.

He could have earned high wages.

Not all clauses beginning with if are contrary to fact. When an if clause indicates something that is likely to happen, use the indicative, not the subjunctive.

If I study hard [likely to happen], I will pass the test.

If his fever continues to fall [likely to happen], he will recover.