The Naked Writer

Happy Verbs

Well, I don’t think the verbs are actually happy. I only said that to attract your attention. But verbs do have moods. And I used the word “moods” to draw your attention, too. But it’s true that verbs have moods, though we also call them modes.

If the following seems boring, jump down to the subjunctive part because that’s the really significant element, which most people don’t seem to understand.

Indicative mood is a fancy name for the ordinary declarative mood. Joe pays his agent 15 percent of his earnings. His mother takes 20 percent for his room and board.

Imperative is the verb mood used to give a command. Go into the house and get me something to eat. Spotting an imperative verb is sometimes important so that you realize the subject is understood (you), and you can recognize an independent clause when you see the use of an imperative verb without a subject. (Or is that too much information?)

Interrogative mood is, as you might guess, used to ask questions. These are really declarative verbs turned around and often with the assistance of a helper verb. Will you go away? Waiting for someone? (Yes, the subject is understood.)

Conditional mood puts a condition on the execution of the verb action by using a helper/ancillary verb. The dog might bite you. I would do that if James came with. We could go if you invited us.

Now comes the real reason I put all this together because here’s where all the mistakes are made…with subjunctive, which is a kind of conditional mood.

Subjunctive mood is the (conditional) mood used when what is being described is actually and obviously unreal or impossible. Subjunctive is generally used with an “if”—but not always, and not all “if” subordinate (dependent) clauses will use subjunctive. Here goes:

If I was the man in the moon, I would bring you up to live with me there. Incorrect because the verb should be in the subjunctive mood. The statement is obviously mere fantasy.

If I were the man in the moon, I would bring you up to live with me there. Correct. That’s the subjunctive for the “to be” (singular) past tense.

If I was an undercover agent, would you like me less? Correct if we don’t know whether the “I” individual might be an undercover agent and he/she might be. or if we (the readers) know that he is.

That’s the most important subjunctive use in terms of mistakes often made, though we have a few others that I refuse to go into. I started to, but writing about it got too complex, and I hardly see any mistakes in the other formats, making the question merely academic. So there.

If I were the head of the English department of a large university, I would make everyone taking an English class buy my book The Naked Writer. Correct. I would, but I’m not. You can go to Amazon anyway. (Print edition to come.)

If I were teaching a class in science fiction and fantasy in a large university, I would make every student buy my book Question Woman & Howling Sky. Correct, but I only teach online at Writer’s Digest University and I hardly ever teach the science fiction class—and the school picks the texts. Bummer. 🙂 (But you can take a class with me; check the schedule.)

Ask me anything about language and I will answer. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find the answer. Thanks for reading.

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The Naked Writer

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