Is the Subjunctive Mood Right for Fiction?

Two red squirrels on a birch log, making wishes.

Although some believe that the subjunctive mood in English is dying, many of us use it all the time, whether we know it or not. And that means the subjunctive is right for fiction, even in the mouth of a character who wouldn’t know a subjunctive from a subplot.

The Chicago Way

CMOS 5.123 and 5.124 explain that the subjunctive mood “expresses an action or state as doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional, hypothetical, or otherwise contrary to fact.” It’s useful for stating wishes, conjectures, demands, and suggestions. This is in contrast to the indicative mood, which we use to state facts and opinions.

If I were you . . . [contrary to fact]

If I were a rich man . . . [wish]

Oh, were it so. [conjecture]

The landlord insists that the dog go. [demand]

I recommend that she take a vacation. [suggestion]

Although the word “subjunctive” might sound pompous and intimidating, people (real and fictional) often use it intuitively both in speech and in writing, and it sounds perfectly natural.

For example, in the novel Run, Rose, Run by Dolly Parton and James Patterson (Little, Brown, 2022), the character AnnieLee has a down-home type of diction (“ain’t,” “kinda,” etc.), yet the subjunctives in her speech and in the close narration manage to follow Chicago style without damaging the character’s credibility:

“She would’ve laughed if she weren’t so outraged.” (chap. 2, Kindle ed.) [subjunctive; AnnieLee is outraged, so the clause is contrary to fact]

“If he was bad, she didn’t want to hear him.” (chap. 8, Kindle ed.) [indicative; AnnieLee doesn’t know if the man about to perform is any good]

Even so, the subjunctive might not be perfect for every context. A writer’s choice of the indicative or subjunctive mood can affect the tone and authenticity of narration or dialogue. Creative writers and their editors will benefit from understanding the formal use of the subjunctive (that is, the usage traditionally considered correct in English grammar guides) in order to make the right choice.

Creative License

CMOS 5.124 spells out three errors that speakers and writers frequently make when using or not using the subjunctive. Because these departures from formal usage are common, they might be perfect for certain characters or narrators to make. Take note of them for when informal usage is right for your work.

Error 1. Using the indicative when the subjunctive is technically correct. This “error” is so widely found in speech and writing that it would be at home in many creative contexts:

If it wasn’t for your help, I never would have found the place. [indicative in place of subjunctive]

If it weren’t for your help, I never would have found the place. [formal subjunctive]

TIP
When you want very informal diction, push harder against the rule:

If you weren’t my brother, I’d turn you in. [conventional subjunctive]

If you wasn’t my brother, I’d turn you in. [creative grammar]

Error 2. Using the subjunctive when a statement beginning with “if” or “whether” isn’t actually contrary to fact.

I called to see whether she were in. [unwarranted use of subjunctive]

I called to see whether she was in. [formal use of indicative; she might have been in, so the statement could be true]

The two examples above may present a conundrum for many writers. The first one (“whether she were in”) might sound proper, but it isn’t. It’s akin to the use of “whom” when “who” is correct, an overeager reach for formality. Writers must know their characters intimately to take advantage of this level of grammar awareness. Would the character know formal grammar and employ it, or would they merely aspire to it, hit-and-miss?

Reader expectations might also complicate a writer’s decision. Will this grammar sound right or wrong to most readers? At times like that, writers must trust their ear and remember that no choice will please every reader.

Error 3. Using two conditional clauses in place of a subjunctive plus a conditional. This construction is more common in speech than in writing, and less likely to be appropriate in narrative than in dialogue unless the narrative is highly voiced, as in Run, Rose, Run.

If I would have gone, I would have won. [two conditional clauses in place of a subjunctive followed by a conditional]

If I had gone, I would have won. [formal use of a subjunctive contrary to fact followed by a conditional]

TIP
Using “of” in place of “have” to make a character sound folksy or ignorant can backfire and make the writer—or more likely, the copyeditor—look bad:

If I would of gone, I would of won.

When spoken quickly, the words “of” and “have” sound very similar (hence the error), so you might as well choose “have.” Contractions are another option; they sometimes work better for effect.

If I’d have gone, I woulda won. [contraction of “I would” and “would have”]

If I’d’ve gone, I’da won. [two different contractions of “I would have”]

How to Decide

The challenge in using the subjunctive is to judge when it’s appropriate. For instance, the presence of “if” doesn’t automatically dictate a subjunctive. A good rule of thumb is that if the speaker or narrator doesn’t know the facts, use the indicative, whether the action takes place in the present or in the past:

If I’m right about this, please call. [indicative; I don’t know whether I’m right]

If I were on the bus right now, I’d be on time. [subjunctive contrary to fact; I know I’m not on the bus]

If it arrived, it was not properly filed. [indicative; the writer doesn’t know whether it arrived]

If it had arrived, it could have changed the course of history. [subjunctive contrary to fact; it didn’t arrive]

If Napoleon was in fact poisoned with arsenic, historians will need to reevaluate his associates. [indicative; the writer doesn’t know whether Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic]

If Napoleon were here in Chicago, there’d be a musical about it, for sure. [subjunctive contrary to fact; Napoleon is not in Chicago]

Takeaway

Recognizing shades of “properness” in grammar gives a writer an advantage in crafting dialogue and narration that’s nuanced and credible. For more advice and examples of the subjunctive in various tenses, see CMOS 5.123–27.


Squirrel art by kellyplz / Adobe Stock.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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2 thoughts on “Is the Subjunctive Mood Right for Fiction?

  1. Apropos of nothing, my grandmother did her Master’s Thesis at the Univerisity of Chicago (Department of Latin) on “The Subjunctive In Juvenal” submitted in August 1913.

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