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Considering the counterfactual

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OCTOBER 28, 2012

In the lyrics of his 2012 song “Boyfriend,” Justin Bieber sadly neglects perhaps the most ignored aspect of the English language: the subjunctive mood.

“If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go.”

Sorry, Justin. If you were my boyfriend, you’d never let me go. (Maybe I’d let you go, but that’s a different story.)

Why the correction? The subjunctive mood is used to express counterfactuals. As it seems, Bieber and his love interest are not currently an item, which is what merits his plea in the first place. Therefore, the feeling he is trying to express is indeed hypothetical. Such is the sophisticated aspect of language — being able to describe occurrences that are beyond the realm of direct sensory observation.

Here are some other examples of the subjunctive used properly:

“Her only request is that he not publish the cartoon.”

“My family wishes we were in New York for Christmas.”

“If you were in my position, what would you do?”

The first is an example of the simple present subjunctive, while the second and third both illustrate the past subjunctive.

So why is this crucial grammatical element so often ignored?

For one, many of us are never formally taught the subjunctive mood. For most of my high school years, I recognized the subjunctive’s application to Spanish but rarely its application to English. My Spanish teachers clearly compared the tenses of both the subjunctive mood and the indicative mood (which describes events that actually occurred). However, my understanding of the English subjunctive virtually depended upon my observing its use in daily conversation.

Another reason people overlook the subjunctive mood is that its conjugation often mirrors that of indicative tenses, resulting in people conflating the two. The simple present subjunctive generally assumes the regular infinitive form of a verb (“My coach demands that he swim faster”), and the simple past subjunctive assumes the form of the simple past indicative (“I insisted that they learned proper grammar”). These similarities, unfortunately, make distinguishing the subjunctive difficult.

Speaking of mainstream music, another correct use of the subjunctive mood? The title of Beyonce’s 2008 hit single “If I Were a Boy.” In this instance, Beyonce displays a sound command of the English language, rare in the popular music industry, by acknowledging the hypothetical event of her being male.

She may not know much about algebra (according to her 2001 single “1+1”), but Beyonce, at least in this case, knows her grammar.


Contact Rupa Subramaniam at 


OCTOBER 28, 2012