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Wondering about the subjunctive

“He wondered if he were hallucinating.” I came across that use of the subjunctive while listening to the audiobook of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

To me, the subjunctive mood—the “if he were”—sounded odd with the verb “wondered,” and it stuck in my ear. Then again, I don’t use the subjunctive very often. I tend to use it sparingly, on the rare occasions when I am being directive or when I say things like “If I were you, I’d …”

Grammarians will tell you that mood is the way that a speaker’s stance toward a statement is shown, whether it is a statement, command, wish, etc. Experts differ on how many moods English has, but the language is not particularly moody. The indicative is used to make statements. The imperative is for commands and prohibitions. The conditional is used for various prerequisites (like “If you wash the dishes, I’ll put them away” or “I’ll give you a ride, if I can.”).

The subjunctive mood with a bare verb is used after verbs that express a demand, recommendation, request, or necessity (as in “I insist that everyone be punctual,” “I suggest you be careful,” or “It’s required that everyone show identification”). The subjunctive with were is used in expressions that set up situations that are unreal, hypothetical, or contrary-to-fact, or in suppositions or wishes (“Were I living on Mars, I might have super-strength because of the gravity,” “If I were at my computer, I could look that up,” “Were I stranded on a desert island, I don’t suppose I’d survive long.”).

The subjunctive also crops up in some fixed phrases, like “As it were,” “Be that as it may” and “So be it.” It had been a more vital feature of grammar in Old and Middle English where the subjunctive was used to signal indirect speech and a range of dependent clauses. Over the centuries, many of its functions were taken over by other grammatical tricks.

Getting back to American Gods, I was puzzled by the use of “if he were” after the verb “wondered,” since the wondering seemed to me to conflict with the idea of things being hypothetical or unreal. The character Shadow just wasn’t sure if he was hallucinating. (Spoiler alert: he probably was, because he had just been talking to his dead wife, and a squirrel is about to offer him a drink of water from a walnut shell.)

It seemed to me that I would write things like:

He wondered if he was ill.

She wondered if she was winning.

I wondered if I was overthinking things.

All of these sound odd to me with the subjunctive were substituted for was.

He wondered if he were ill.

She wondered if she were winning.

I wondered if I were overthinking things.

But it turns out that Gaiman’s use of the subjunctive is not all that unusual. Print usage seems split. A quick search of Google books revealed authors using examples like:

He wondered if he was still alive … .

And she wondered if she was really interested in him.

He wondered if he was dying.

But also examples like these:

He wondered if he were the only one alive,

She wondered if she were dreaming.

He wondered if he were going to sleep, … .

Writers and editors I asked were split. Some said they would use “was” in casual conversation, but use “were” in writing. A couple indicated that their intuitions on the matter were influenced by French or Spanish grammar, where a more robust subjunctive is used to indicate uncertainty as opposed to fact. Perhaps Neil Gaiman (or his editor) was influenced by French.

What’s more likely is that Gaiman is using the were-subjunctive as a purposeful bit of formality to add some drama to the character’s perplexity. At an earlier key moment in American Gods, we find another example: “Czernebog looked as if he were about to protest; and then the fight went out of him.” Here too, the subjunctive seems to underscore the uncertainty of the moment. Yet, at other places in the novel, where there is less tension, Gaiman uses the simple past tense: “He wondered if she was taking tranquilizers,” “Shadow wondered, coldly and idly, if he was going to die,” “For one moment, he wondered if the man was crazy.”

H. W. Fowler called the subjunctive “moribund” in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, but noted that a few uses were surviving. For writers of narrative, this may be one of them.

Feature image: “Long shadows from trees behind in winter times in the fields” by Thomas Lendt. CC BY SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. David Glidden

    In Greek one can distinguish the optative from the subjunctive. In the more simplified English grammar, doesn’t the subjunctive incorporate the optative mood in most cases? I wish it were not so. Had modern English incorporated more features of its Indo-European roots, we would be more exacting in speech as well as writing.

  2. Michael Rogers

    The conditional examples you give do not contain a conditional, though they do contain a condition of futurity. “If you were to wash the dishes, I would put them away – but we both know that’s not going to happen!” If I had spilt it, I would have mopped it up… I would buy it, if I had the money…

    You’re quite right about probability/ improbability deciding whether the subjunctive is required – it’s not a merely “stylistic” choice.

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