We’ve received countless emails, tweets, and Tumblr messages over the past few years about two songs: “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette and “Boyfriend” by Justin Bieber—the former because Ms. Morissette ironically mentions nothing ironic in her song (a fine topic for another time), and the latter because of its infamous opening line: “If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go.”
The other grammar atrocities in “Boyfriend” aside, the most recognized line provides a good starting point into a discussion of the subjunctive mood.
The subjunctive mood indicates a hypothetical state, a wish, a desire, or an imaginary situation. The opening of “Boyfriend” certainly does: JB is saying that if he hypothetically were your boyfriend, he would never let you go.
In such cases, the subjunctive form of the verb to be—“were”—is used (irrespective of the noun or pronoun) after “if,” “wish,” “as though,” and “suppose.”
Here is our favorite comic that illustrates this point:
If Tatsuya Ishida were to quickly diagram the sentence in the above comic, it would look like this:
You can now see why the following examples contain errors.
To be fair, Justin Bieber and Far East Movement are not in the business of promoting good grammar. After all, one cannot ignore this adage:
Moving along, there is one other aspect of the subjunctive mood that doesn’t get nearly as much attention. We don’t have pop songs or ads that share it with a worldwide audience. It’s much more pedantic.
The following verbs often attract (for lack of a better word) the subjunctive mood: ask, command, demand, determine, insist, order, prefer, recommend, require, and suggest. And these adjectives do likewise: crucial, essential, important, imperative, and necessary.
With either the aforementioned verbs or adjectives, we use the base form of the verb (the way the verb would appear as a dictionary entry, i.e., without -s, -ed, or -ing), regardless of the noun or pronoun.
Let’s look at some examples:
- The teacher suggested that Jim go (not “goes”) to study hall after class to get help in geometry.
- I insist that Lisa put (not “puts”) her phone away before the exam starts.
- The editor said it was essential that the writer meet (not “meets”) the deadline.
- We demand that this post end (not “ends”) soon.
If the above examples look and sound grotesque, you’re not alone. We predict that this usage will die out over time. In the meantime, give it a try. If you find it unbearable and want to avoid writing this way altogether, simply rephrase the sentence. (That’s often the best solution to many grammar problems anyway.)