Definition of the term Subjunctive

There is a watercolour in the London Guildhall Library which shows a waterpump in Lombard Street. It was painted by George Shepherd in 1810, who drew many topographical London scenes. The pump is right by the wall of St Mary Abchurch, and it consists of a spout coming out of the wall of the church at about waist height, a big handle, and a basin and drain on the ground. On the church wall above the pump it says:

Whosoever Washes Fish or Commits any Nusance against this Pump Will be Prosecuted accord<ing> to the Law.

Above this sign, is another sign, well above head-height, and this one says:

Whosoever Stick Bills against this Wall Will be Prosecuted.

Would you write that last sentence that way? Does the grammar strike you as wrong? Write your answer in no more than a sentence below:

Lombard Street painted by George Shepherd in 1810.

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


Today we’d be more likely to write:

whoever sticks bills will be prosecuted (nowadays the prohibition is usually expressed “bill posters will be prosecuted”).

There is a lack of suffix –s on stick because the verb is expressed in the subjunctive mood.

‘When the subjunctive is found, some mental attitude towards the content of the noun clause is usually implied: one of the following ideas may be present - condition, desire, obligation, supposition, perplexity, doubt, uncertainty, or unreality.’ (Mitchell 1988: 123)

Mitchell was describing the Old English language (that is, English before 1066) but his comment holds good for centuries to come and covers the Lombard Street pump sign: it was not certain whether anyone would stick any bills there, and that doubt is expressed by the base form stick. In Old English (before 1066), subjunctive singulars were marked by e, and subjunctive plurals were marked by en (Lass 1994: 173), with a small amount of regional variation; but by the Early Modern English period (from 1500 onwards) those suffixes had reduced to a central vowel and were in the process of becoming omitted altogether. In texts dated from c.1500 onwards the subjunctive is sometimes represented by a word-final –e, and sometimes by the base form of the verb.

As a mnemonic for the subjunctive/indicative contrast, we can juxtapose ‘long live the king’ (subjunctive base form live), where we exhort God to see to it that the king lives long, with ‘the king lives long’ (indicative third-person singular lives), which is a factual observation (Lass 1994: 173). And you may have the fossilised subjunctive construction ‘if I were you’ in your own idiolect, where the condition of unreality in Mitchell’s list above obtains (for further definition of the subjunctive see Wright 2001). Actually, many people use the subjunctive frequently, in the sequence ‘damn it/you/me’ (supply your own verb in place of ‘damn’). This is not an indicative imperative; it may look like a command, but it is really a subjunctive plea to the Almighty to damn, sod or otherwise screw up whatever or whomever it is that we are cursing. We don’t have the power to do it ourselves; we need superhuman intercession to do it for us.


Lass, Roger. 1994. Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion. Cambridge: CUP.

Mitchell, Bruce. 1988. On Old English: Selected Papers. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Wright, Laura. 2001. “Third person singular present-tense -s, -th and zero, 1575 - 1648”, American Speech, 76/3, 236-258.

Demonstration of the term Subjunctive

Traditional subjunctive usage is still with us in regional speech, but it has to a great extent died out in the Standard English dialect. In 1999 I asked a woman from Tower Hamlets in the East End of London why she hadn’t remarried. She replied: “I waited til the right one come along, if they do” – and at the time of the conversation, she was still waiting. Paraphrasing this in Standard written English gives something like ‘I’m waiting til the right one comes along, if he does’. Notice how I’ve had to change all three verbs, and the sentence is now in the indicative mood.

Has anything been lost, do you think?

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


It’s really a question of personal judgement and interpretation. The Standard rewrite has all the factual information. But the original had a past tense verb expressing past time, a subjunctive verb conveying uncertainty at the present and uncertainty in the future, and an indefinite singular pronoun they further underscoring that uncertainty (not, in context, expressing plurality or avoiding being gender-specific). This is a semantic subtlety that the Standard version can’t capture.

In the sixteenth century the system of marking doubt, hypothesis, unreality with the subjunctive began to break down, and the present-day system to come into use. When reading historical texts, I find it helpful to be on the alert for certain ‘introducers’ of the subjunctive, such as clauses governed by if, until, so as, although, unless, as, whether, and (in the sense of ‘unless’), except, as though – which all introduce doubt, hypotheses, conditionality, or other means of undercutting a factual statement.

I have taken examples from the London Bridewell Court Minute Books, which are a record of people speaking in court:

Excerpt 1. fo 188, 23 March 1576

George Smerken alias Caven examined saieth that at Blounts house in St katherines resorte many Dutche men Italians Straungers and Shipmen and that the house is neuer wthoute whores or sometymes more or lesse And Blount lodgeth them, And knoweth it and is bounde to them And he hathe purchased dyuerse lands wth the money he hathe gotten And if he come and see a whore and a knave together, he will fayne him self dronke as thoughe he weare not one that would knowe any such

The indictable offence is couched as hypothesis: ‘and if he come and see’, rather than ‘on specific occasions, he came and saw’. The clause ‘as thoughe he weare not one’ is expressed in the past subjunctive.

Excerpt 2. fo 259v, 11 December 1577

Dorothie Wise wiffe of Thomas wise beinge examined of her lewde liffe ffor that ther hath bene gret complante made of her aswell by James Marcadye as other Althoughe she be accused by manye yet she denyeth all / she is setto spinninge wth the matrone

Excerpt 3. fo 337v, 28 June 1623

Ordered the sonne of Elizabeth Briggs shall haue a suite of Clothes given him, soe as his father in lawe come and vndertake that hee shall no more bee chargeable, or troblesome to this hospitall.

Excerpt 4. fo 42, Saturday 25 April 1618

This Courte appointed he should be sett in the Stocks, and haue no meate vnles he doe worke.

Literary Exercise

In Christopher Marlowe’s play of 1590 Tamburlaine the Great, we find both subjunctive zero and –s. Identify the third-person singular subjunctive and indicative verbs in the eight lines of text below (ignore modals will and shall):


Your tentes of white now pitch'd before the gates

And gentle flags of amitie displaid.

I doubt not but the Gouernour will yeeld,

Offering Damascus to your Maiesty.


So shall he haue his life, and all the rest.

But if he stay vntil the bloody flag

Be once aduanc'd on my vermilion Tent,

He dies …

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


But if he stay (subjunctive, due to doubt), until the bloody flag be once advanced (subjunctive, due to futurity) on my vermilion tent, he dies (indicative, this is what will certainly happen)

Next, in the extract below, the Emperor Mycetes is plotting with Meander against his brother Cosroe and the bandit Tamburlaine. Spot the third-person singular subjunctive –s, and suggest why Marlowe used it instead of a subjunctive zero.


Come my Meander, let vs to this geere,

I tel you true my heart is swolne with wrath,

On this same theeuish villaine tamburlaine.

And of that false Cosroe, my traiterous brother

Would it not grieue a King to be so abusde.

And haue a thousand horsmen tane away?

And which is worst to haue his Diadem

Sought for by such scalde knaues as loue him not?

I thinke it would: wel then, by heauens I sweare,

Aurora shall not peepe out of her doores,

But I will haue Cosroe by the head,

And kill proud Tamburlaine with point of sword.

Tell you the rest ( Meander ) I haue said.


Then hauing past Armenian desarts now,

And pitch our tents vnder the Georgean hilles.

Whose tops are couered with Tartarian thieues,

That lie in ambush, waiting for a pray:

What should we doe but bid them battaile straight,

And rid the world of those detested troopes?

Least if we let them lynger here a while,

They gather strength by power of fresh supplies.

This countrie swarmes with vile outragious men,

That liue by rapine and by lawlesse spoile,

Fit Souldiers for the wicked Tamburlaine.

And he that could with giftes and promises.

Inueigle him that lead a thousand horse,

And make him false his faith vnto his King,

Will quickly win such as are like himselfe.

Therefore cheere vp your mindes, prepare to fight,

He that can take or slaughter tamburlaine,

Shall rule the Prouince of Albania.

Who brings that Traitors head theridamas,

Shal haue a gouernment in Medea:

Beside the spoile of him and all his traine:

But if Cosroe (as our Spials say,

And as we know) remaines with tamburlaine,

His Highnesse pleasure is that he should liue,

And be reclaim'd with princely lenitie.

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


if Cosroe … remains

The parenthetical text tells us that Mycetes and Meander do indeed have intelligence that Cosroe and Tamburlaine are together and can be captured, so the suffix –s acts to reinforce this certainty. We are privy to Mycetes’ strategy, and his certainty of winning at this point in the drama. His confidence – or overconfidence – here has necessary dramatic purpose, as, contrary to his expectations, Tamburlaine will go on to defeat Mycetes, and then to renege on Cosroe.

Teaching Point

In older texts, subjunctive verbs with zero endings have a semantic colouring of hypothesis, doubt or unreality. This subtlety can be missed by present-day readers. If you come across a zero-marked verb where you would expect a suffix, ask yourself whether the verb is in the subjunctive mood, and if so, why. If your text is historical and shows both subjunctive –s and zero, consider whether the patterning is semantically weighted.