The Subjunctive

Because speakers of modern English seldom use the subjunctive mood, the Old English subjunctive is difficult for us to get used to. We do still use it when stating conditions contrary to fact, as in

If I were a carpenter,
and you were a lady,
would you marry me anyway?
Here the subjunctive were (the indicative would be was) suggests that the speaker is not in fact a carpenter. We also use the subjunctive in noun clauses following verbs of desiring, commanding, suggesting, and so on. For example:
The king commanded that the knight go on a quest.
The king desired that the knight go on a quest.
I suggest that you be a little quieter.
I move that the bypass be routed east of town.
I wish that he were wiser.
Here the subjunctives tell us that the condition described in the noun clause is not a present reality or a future certainty, but a possibility mediated by someone's desire. Some of these usages are disappearing: the first two examples above sound a little archaic, and it would now be more idiomatic to say "The king commanded the knight to go on a quest" and "The king wanted the knight to go on a quest," using an infinitive construction rather than a subjunctive.

Aside from these common usages, the subjunctive now appears mainly in fixed or formulaic expressions, for example, "come what may," "thanks be to God."

The good news from Old English is that verbs in the subjunctive mood are not marked for person, so you don't have a complete new paradigm to learn. The bad news is that the subjunctive is far more common in Old English than in modern English, and you must get used to seeing it in environments where you do not expect it.

As in modern English, the subjunctive is used for conditions contrary to fact, for example,

Gif ic wære treowwyrhta . . .
If I were a carpenter . . .
and also in noun clauses following verbs of desiring, commanding, and so on:
Ic wysce þæt he wisra wære.
I wish that he were wiser.
But the subjunctive is also used in noun clauses where we would not now use it:
Hi cwædon þæt he wære wis.
Here the subjunctive in the noun clause following Hi cwædon "They said" does not signal a condition contrary to fact, and "said" is hardly a verb of desiring or commanding. In fact, the fairest translation of this sentence would be
They said that he was wise,
making no attempt at all to reproduce the subjunctive. What then does the subjunctive indicate?

Think of the subjunctive as implying some mental attitude toward the action of the verb in the subjunctive. In clauses following verbs of desire, that attitude is obvious. In "Hi cwædon þæt he wære wis," it is merely that the speaker is reporting an opinion. He is not necessarily casting doubt on the rightness or wrongness of that opinion. It may indeed be obvious that he is in complete agreement with the opinion:

Sanctus Paulus sæde þæt Crist wære soðlice God.
Saint Paul said that Christ was truly God.
The following sentence is similar, but it uses the indicative:
Se witega Isaias awrat þæt Iohannes is stefn clipiendes on westene.
The prophet Isaias wrote that John is the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
The choice between subjunctive and indicative may often be a matter of individual preference or rhetorical emphasis.

Another common environment in which the subjunctive does not necessarily indicate doubt or unreality is the concessive clause introduced by þeah "though," which always takes the subjunctive, regardless of the truth of the statement in the clause. For example:

Ne sceal nan man swa þeah, þeah he synful sie, geortruwian.
Nevertheless (swa þeah), no man must despair (geortruwian), though he be sinful.
Here þeah has a sense something like "even if," implying that the man may or may not be sinful; the subjunctive is appropriate (if a little archaic) even in modern English. But compare:
God is mildheort, þeah ðe ure yfelnes him oft abelge.
God is merciful, though our wickedness often angers him.
Here the writer has no doubt that we do often anger God, but the verb abelge is still in the subjunctive mood.

In general, you can expect relative clauses, clauses of place, and "when" and "while" clauses to take the indicative. Concessive clauses, as I have said, and "before" and "until" clauses more often take the subjunctive. But the mood in many kinds of clause varies as it does in noun clauses, and linguists argue ceaselessly about the meaning of the subjunctive and the indicative in several common constructions.

Beginners (and scholars too!) sometimes feel that they must always translate the Old English subjunctive with a modern English subjunctive or with a subjunctive-like construction such as the conditional ("would anger"). But it is often best, as the discussion above shows, to translate the subjunctive with a plain indicative. You must determine as nearly as you can what the subjunctive is doing in each instance, and decide what modern English construction best renders that sense.

The Old English subjunctive is often used to make a first- or third-person imperative, and then the best translation usually converts the subject of the verb into an object of "let." In plural constructions, the ­n of the ending is generally dropped.

Sie he amansumod.
Let him be excommunicated.

Ete hie hrædlice.
Let them eat quickly.

Lufie we ure nextan.
Let us love our neighbors.

This usage survives in some formulaic phrases such as "God be thanked."

Sometimes it is impossible to tell the subjunctive from the indicative. In the first-person singular present, both the subjunctive and the indicative end in ­e, and in the past tense of strong verbs the subjunctive and the indicative are identical in the second-person singular. In late Old English the subjunctive plural ending was written ­on instead of ­en, making it identical with the indicative plural in the past tense. In such cases you should resist the temptation to guess whether a verb is indicative or subjunctive. Rather, wherever you can't distinguish mood it simply doesn't exist.

Handouts Index
Old English Home Page