Verb Moods: Indicative, Imperative, Subjunctive

Verb: Mood

In linguistics, grammatical mood (also mode) is a grammatical feature of verbs, used for signalling modality. Mood is distinct from grammatical tense or grammatical aspect. Moods are marked inflectionally in historical forms of the language like Old English, Middle English, and early and present-day Modern English.

A grammatical mood is a way of speaking that allows people to express their attitude toward what they are saying.

Different languages have different number of grammatical moods. Some examples of moods are indicative, interrogative, imperative, subjunctive, injunctive, optative, and potential. These are all finite forms of the verb. Infinitives, gerunds, and participles, which are non-finite forms of the verb, are not considered to be examples of moods.

The English language has three moods, namely indicative, imperative, and subjunctive moods. Some grammarians include the conditional mood (the conditional mood is a grammatical mood used in conditional sentences, to express a proposition whose validity is dependent on some condition, possibly counterfactual), and the interrogative mood (the interrogative (or interrogatory) mood is used for asking questions). Nonetheless, as the subjunctive mood includes conditional sentences and the indicative mood includes sentences asking questions, both the conditional mood and the interrogative mood are generally not considered as separate moods.

Indicative Mood: shows
– an assertion (I am there),
– denial (I am not there), or
– question (Am I there?)

Imperative Mood: shows
– a command (Go there),
– prohibition (Do not go there),
– entreaty (Please go there), or
– advice (You should go there)

Subjunctive Mood: shows
– doubt (If I were you, I would sell those stocks) or
– something contrary to fact (May you live a thousand years!)

Indicative Mood

Indicative Mood: shows
– an assertion (I am there),
– denial (I am not there), or
– question (Am I there?)

In Modern English the indicative mood is for statements of actuality or strong probability, and in addition acts as a default mood for all instances which do not require use of a specific mood.

Verb mood is not used to show time, since verb tense is used to show time. The indicative mood is used to show reality, which is usually what is happening in the current time. However, it can also be used to show some reality that had happened in the past or might happen in the future:

During the rainy season, both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers rise high.  (present indicative)
The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers rose to record heights in 1993. (past indicative)
Mid-westerners will remember the flooding of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers for many years to come. (future indicative)

Imperative Mood

Imperative Mood: shows
– a command (Go there),
– prohibition (Do not go there),
– entreaty (Please go there), or
– advice (You should go there)

Imperatives are used principally for ordering, requesting or advising the listener to do (or not to do) something: “Put down the gun!”; “Pass me the sauce”; “Don’t go too near the tiger.” They are also often used for giving instructions as to how to perform a task (“Install the file, then restart your computer“). They can sometimes be seen on signs giving orders or warnings (“Stop”; “Give way”; “Do not enter”, “No Parking”, “No Smoking”).

The use of the imperative mood may be seen as impolite, inappropriate or even offensive in certain circumstances. In polite speech, orders or requests are often phrased instead as questions or statements, rather than as imperatives:

Could you come here for a moment? (more polite than “Come here!“)
It would be great if you made us a drink. (for “Make us a drink!“)
I have to ask you to stop. (for “Stop!“)

Imperatives are also used for speech acts whose function is essentially not to make an order or request, but to give an invitation, give permission, express a wish, make an apology, etc.:

Come to the party tomorrow! (invitation)
Eat the apple if you want. (permission)
Have a nice trip! (wish)
Pardon me. (apology)

When written, imperative sentences are often, but not always, terminated with an exclamation mark.

English usually omits the subject pronoun in imperative sentences:

You work hard. (indicative)
Work hard! (imperative; subject pronoun you omitted)

However, it is possible to include the you in imperative sentences for emphasis.

English imperatives are negated using don’t (as in “Don’t work!“)

You are not late. (indicative)
Don’t be late! (imperative)

It is also possible to use do-support in affirmative imperatives, for emphasis or (sometimes) politeness: “Do be quiet!”; “Do help yourself!“.

The subject you may be included for emphasis in negated imperatives as well, following don’t: “Don’t you dare do that again!

Subjunctive Mood

Subjunctive Mood: shows
– doubt (If I were you, I would sell those stocks) or
– something contrary to fact (May you live a thousand years!)

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood found in many languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgement, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language. The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real) – it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood (used principally to indicate that something is a statement of fact).

The subjunctive mood in English is used to form sentences that express wished-for, tentatively assumed, or hypothetical states of affairs, rather than things that the speaker intends to represent as true and factual. These include statements that express opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire. The subjunctive mood, such as She suggests that he speak English, contrasts with the indicative mood, which is used for statements of fact, such as He speaks English.

In Modern English, the subjunctive form of a verb often looks identical to the indicative form, and thus subjunctives are not a very visible grammatical feature of English. For most verbs, the only distinct subjunctive form is found in the third person singular of the present tense, where the subjunctive lacks the -s ending: It is necessary that he see a doctor (contrasted with the indicative he sees). The verb be, however, has not only a distinct present subjunctive (be, as in I suggest that he be removed) but also a past subjunctive were (as in If he were rich, …).

These two tenses of the subjunctive have no particular connection in meaning with present and past time. Terminology varies; sometimes what is called the present subjunctive here is referred to simply as the subjunctive, and the form were may be treated just as an alternative irrealis form of was rather than a past subjunctive.

Another case where present-subjunctive forms are distinguished from indicatives is when they are negated: compare I recommend that they not enter the competition (subjunctive) with I hope that they do not enter the competition (indicative).

Additional Reading:

In linguistics, moods may be broadly classified into two groups, namely Realis (what is) and Irrealis (what is not), which can be further subdivided into various other categories as given below:

Linguistic modalities and grammatical moods

Realis (what is)

  • Indicative/declarative
  • Aggressive
  • Energetic
  • Evidential (Sensory)
  • Generic/gnomic
  • Mirative

Irrealis (what is not)

— Deontic (what should be)

  • Benedictive
  • Commissive (promises, threats)
  • Directive (commands, requests, requirements)
  • Debitive
  • Deliberative
  • Dynamic
  • Hortative (+ subtypes)
  • Imperative
  • Injunctive
  • Jussive
  • Necessitative
  • Permissive
  • Precative
  • Prohibitive
  • Propositive
  • Volitive (hopes, wishes, fears)
  • Desiderative
  • Imprecative
  • Optative

— Epistemic (what may be)

  • (inferences, possibilities, questions, etc.)
  • Alethic
  • Assumptive
  • Deductive
  • Dubitative
  • Hypothetical
  • Inferential/renarrative/oblique
  • Interrogative
  • Potential
  • Speculative
  • Subjunctive

— Dependent circumstances (what would be)

  • Conditional
  • Eventive

1. Palmer, F. R., Mood and Modality, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986 (second edition 2001).
2. Bybee, Joan; Perkins, Revere; and Pagliuca, William. The Evolution of Grammar, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994.
3. Loos, Eugine Erals; Anderson, Susan; Day, Dwight H., Jr.; Jordan, Paul C.; Wingate, J. Douglas, eds. (2004), What is mood and modality?, SIL International, retrieved 2014-02-06
5. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Richard M. Hogg, Roger Lass, Norman Francis Blake, Suzanne Romaine, R. W. Burchfield, John Algeo (2000).
6. Wierzbicka, Anna, “Cross-Cultural Pragmatics“, Mouton de Gruyter, 1991. ISBN 3-11-012538-2
7. Brown, P., and S. Levinson. “Universals in language use”, in E. N. Goody (ed.), Questions and Politeness (Cambridge and London, 1978, Cambridge University Press: 56-310)
8. Template:Grammatical moods, Wikipedia
9. Austin, J. L. How to do things with words, Oxford, Clarendon Press 1962.

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