Thursday, April 15, 2010

If I Were A Butterfly… Or Was I?

Mary Allen dared to bring you comma rules. I dare to bring you the grammar of subjunctive mood. Yeah, blame it on her for opening the door. And no fair running away! You claim to be a writer? Then you read this and grow as a writer. C’mon, raise your right hand and repeat after me, “I will read every word of this blog, even if I don’t understand it.“

Thank you.

I learned about subjunctive mood in Spanish class. I never heard it mentioned in any English classes (and I was an English major), so if it’s new to you, don’t worry. The point is we all misuse it, and as writers we need to master it.

A verb mood is different from a verb tense. Tense demonstrates time (thus we have present tense, past tense, future tense, etc.), whereas mood indicates a state of reality (or lack thereof). I won’t confuse you by bringing up all the other moods—today is about the subjunctive mood and we don’t give a hoot about the others.

Simply stated, the subjunctive mood deals with a state contrary to reality—such as a wish or a hypothetical what-if situation. So if you wanted to be a butterfly, you wouldn’t say “If I was a butterfly” or “If she was a butterfly.” No, no, no! The fact, the reality, is that you are not a butterfly, so you use the subjunctive. The correct way to say this is “If I were a butterfly” or “If she were a butterfly.”

Hang on, you said you’d read this all the way through. Didn’t you? *whine* Okay, look for the big clue word IF. The subjunctive is most commonly used in connection with that little two-letter word, so begin with it. If, if, if.  Got it? If the word if denotes something is hypothetical and it ain’t reality, then use the subjunctive verb WERE.  So… If, if, if plus were, were, were. Simple, huh? If I were a rich man (reality is I’m not), I’d pay off the national debt. If he were to find the clue (as of yet it’s not a reality), he’d be a hero. If Chris were a girl (no way), he’d be afraid of spiders. If I were to wear a mini skirt (Ha! Me?), I’d never stop blushing.


If I was a rich man (I am), I had to have an heir. If he was to find the clue (somebody set it up so he couldn’t miss it), I was in trouble. If Chris was a girl (the possibility exists), I’d better give her a private room. If I was to wear a mini skirt (I’m obliged), I had to buy it today.

Uh, yeah, let’s end the lesson there Other uses of the subjunctive mood exist, but your editor probably doesn’t know them, and that’s what they hire proofreaders for. But I’m not letting you off the hook. As a writer, you CAN, you MUST, conquer if, if, if plus were, were, were when the context of the sentence is a lack of reality.

You know, if I were a fairy, I’d wave my magic wand and you’d get it. But guess what?

Steph Prichard


  1. Thanks for explaining this so clearly and with such humor. Awesome post.

  2. If I were a good rememberer I would never forget this.


  3. Subjunctive always throws me, so this was a good review for me, too. Hope it helped--though a little brain glue wouldn't hurt, huh, Sharon?

  4. Michelle WeidenbennerApril 16, 2010 at 2:14 PM

    I enjoyed this fun post. Learning grammar facts can be so boring, tedious, non-creative. You taught me something by giving examples and making it funny. I read the entire article.

  5. This did sound vaguely familiar. Thanks for clarifying it!