Wish It Were Still in Style: The English Subjunctive Mood

Zach Braff recently released a teaser for his upcoming Kickstarter-funded movie, Wish I Was Here.

My initial thoughts were, That’s a great wig! and This looks pretty slick, production-wise. How much did he raise? [ $2.6 million, but then a traditional financier brought it up to $10 million.]

And my third thought was, It’s called Wish I Was Here? What an unfortunate title. It’s yet another sign that the subjunctive mood in English is dying.

What’s the subjunctive mood? It’s a category of verb tenses that are used to communicate hypothetical situations, desires, suggestions, emotions, and other non-concrete expressions. If you’ve heard of it, you most likely learned it in a foreign-language class—the subjunctive is going strong in Spanish, French, and Italian, among others. But not in English.

The English subjunctive can be hard to identify because the verbs are often conjugated the same way they would be in indicative mood (the group of verb tenses we use to make statements of fact). But let’s take a look at one example where the subjunctive and the indicative are clearly different: the past tense of the verb to be.

Here’s a comparison of how you conjugate to be in the past indicative and the past subjunctive:

Past Indicative Past Subjunctive
I was I were
You were You were
He/she/it was He/she/it were
We were We were
They were They were

Zach Braff’s movie title is in the indicative—Wish I Was Here. But it’s not a factual statement about something that actually happened; it’s a wish that the situation were different. The movie should be called Wish I Were Here.

Does that sound a bit stuffy? Old-fashioned? That’s probably because the subjunctive mood is quickly fading from common usage. Here’s another example—a famous song lyric that got changed from subjunctive to indicative forty years later.

In Fiddler on the Roof (opened on Broadway in 1964; set in 1905), Tevye sings If I Were a Rich Man.

When Gwen Stefani borrowed the tune in 2004, she changed the title to If I Was a Rich Girl.

You could argue that it doesn’t really matter if we use the subjunctive mood less than we used to. The subjunctive isn’t required for comprehension; we can all understand what Zach Braff and Gwen Stefani are saying.

But something is lost when you change subjunctive to indicative. The subjunctive has a certain poetic ring to it—a depth of feeling that the indicative doesn’t convey.

When says, “I would that I were dead!” we feel the despair behind her confession. If she’d said, “I want to be dead!” no one would be quoting the poem today.

If I were Zach Braff, and I wanted my movie to have an emotional impact on people reading the posters, I would start a new Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of reprinting all the marketing materials for my newly retitled movie, Wish I Were Here.

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