Never even heard of the subjunctive mood before? Don’t worry, you’re not alone: this mood is sometimes taught to students studying a romance language, but it’s rarely spelled out in English class. But even though you may not know it, you’ve likely been using—and sometimes misusing—the subjunctive mood in your own speaking and writing.
Unfortunately, GMAT sentence correction questions are going to test your ability to explicitly recognize (and correct) the subjunctive mood. In general, the GMAT loves to test you on sentences that sound right but aren’t, and the subjunctive mood is perfect for this agenda. So, in this post, we’ll go over everything that you need to know about the subjunctive mood for the GMAT, including all the kinds of subjunctive mood GMAT questions you’ll encounter and an in-depth analysis of how to recognize and approach them. By the end, you’ll be able to crush any subjunctive mood GMAT question that comes your way.
First of All, What Is a “Mood” (Versus a Tense)?
Great question! You’re probably more familiar with verb tenses than you are with moods. The basic distinction is that tense refers to time, while mood refers to the speaker’s attitude or the manner of expression.
Essentially, a verb’s tense specifies past, present, or future. There are more subdivisions within this (like the perfect past, the pluperfect, etc.), but that’s the basic framework. Conversely, a verb’s mood refers to how the thought gets expressed. The three main moods are the indicative mood, the imperative mood, and the subjunctive mood.
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The indicative mood is the most common, and it’s what we’d consider to be the normal or standard mode of expression. It’s used for assertions and questions—which covers a lot of ground. (“What time is it?” “She’s headed out to buy groceries.”)
The imperative mood is less common, but it’s also fairly easy to comprehend. It’s used to express a command or an order. (“Stop right there! Do what I tell you! Listen to me!”) Note that these are complete sentences, even though there doesn’t appear to be a subject: the “you” is implied in the command.
Here’s a nice example: “I like to write poems” is in the indicative mood, but “Write me a poem, Jess” is in the imperative mood.
The subjunctive mood is used to express conditional or imaginary situations, meaning scenarios that are doubtful, hypothetical, or otherwise run contrary to fact. (“If I were you, I would share my toys with my little sister.”)
The subjunctive is also used after the word “that” following verbs that express suggestions, demands, or recommendations. (“I suggest that he leave for the hike early tomorrow morning to catch the sunrise.”)
In all use cases, the subjunctive mood indicates that the situation occurs “outside” of time: it’s not a real scenario. To illustrate what this looks like in action, we’ll delve into the kinds of sentences that use the subjunctive mood below.
What Is the Subjunctive Mood?
As stated above, in English, the subjunctive mood is used to explore non-real (conditional or imaginary) situations. Within this, there are two main categories for the subjunctive mood: commands/suggestions (with a command verb + “that”), and hypotheticals/wishes (with “were”).
It’s helpful to divide the subjunctive this way because each category has its own key rule that you’ll need to know for the GMAT. So make sure you are familiar with the below use cases before moving on to the next section.
Category 1: Suggestions, Demands, and Necessity (With “That”)
The subjunctive mood is used to express suggestions and recommendations with the word “that”:
Similarly, it is used to express demands that aren’t in the imperative mood (meaning that the demand isn’t expressed directly at the listener):
“We demand that the traitor be executed.”
“They are insisting that he move to Denver to manage the new office.”
It is also used to express necessity in the impersonal (“it is necessary that ” versus “I need you to”):
“It’s crucial that he find a subletter to take over the lease for him.”
Category 2: Hypotheticals and Wishes (With “Were”)
The subjunctive is also used to express hypotheticals, situations that are contrary to fact, and situations that are unlikely to come true. This usage employs “were,” and then sometimes “would”:
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“The doctor dismissed my cough as though it were harmless.”
“If I were the Queen of England, I would bake everyone muffins.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t throw my birthday party on a Monday night.”
Similarly, it is used to express wishes and desires:
“She wishes that the sun were out.”
“If I were a rich man (daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dum…)”
What do all of these many uses for the subjunctive mood have in common? They all express situations that are not real or factual, and thus exist outside of time and tense: they’re either conditional on something else happening, or they’re hypothetical, or they’re something that the speaker wants to happen, or they’re contrary to fact and totally impossible, or they should happen in the future but aren’t set in stone.
The 2 Key Subjunctive Mood GMAT Rules
For GMAT sentence correction questions, whenever you see a sentence that fits into one of the above categories, you know that you’re dealing with the subjunctive. There are really only two rules that you need to know for these questions.
Rule 1: Demand/Suggestion Subjunctives Always Take the Base Form of the Verb After “That”
The base form of a verb is the same as the infinitive form, but without the “to.” It’s not conjugated—as in, it’s not in first, second, or third person singular or plural—and it has no tense. For example, “is,” “was,” “were,” “are,” and “am” are all different conjugations and tenses of the verb “to be.” So the base form of that verb is simply “be” (the infinitive “to be” without the “to”).
Always use the base form of the verb with subjunctive mood demands and suggestions:
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“The doctor suggests that Richard avoid heavy lifting for six to eight weeks.”
This rule is why it’s easier to “see” a demand subjunctive in action when it’s not in the second person: many second-person conjugations are the same as the base form of the verb:
“I suggest that you wake up before dawn.”
This doesn’t look weird to us, and it correctly utilizes the subjunctive mood. But look at the same sentence with a third-person subjunctive clause:
“I suggest that he wake up before dawn.”
This does sound a little strange, because we’re used to saying “he wakes up”—which would not be correct in this example, as it’s a subjunctive mood suggestion and thus takes the base form of the verb “wake.”
Here’s another example:
“I insist that Harry is there.”
This might sound right, but it’s written in the indicative mood, which means that it’s only grammatically correct if I am trying to convince someone that Harry is currently “there.” (Maybe I’m pointing to Harry’s ghost and am insisting to my listeners that Harry is actually present, even though they can’t see him?!)
Now look at the sentence in the subjunctive:
“I insist that Harry be there.”
This is correct if I’m demanding that Harry show up to “there” (wherever “there” is). The sentence is written in the subjunctive mood and it’s probably what I actually mean when I say it (I hope…spooky!).
This rule holds up even with passive constructions of verbs:
“The judge ordered that the witness be imprisoned for perjury.”
Rule 2: Hypothetical/Wish Subjunctives Use “Were”
Some of the sample hypothetical/wish sentences above may have seemed weirdly constructed to you. You might have been wondering why I wrote, “I wish I were done studying,” and not “I wish I was done studying.”
I did so because, the past subjunctive “were” is used for sentences with hypotheticals/wishes.
In other words, use “were” when the situation is not reality or not yet reality—even when you’re not speaking in the past tense:
“I wish I were done studying.”
This conveys that I want to be done studying, but I am not yet done studying.
The same goes for the hypothetical scenarios:
“If I were the Queen of England, I would bake muffins for everyone.”
This is a hypothetical that runs contrary to fact and isn’t even possible in the future (unless Prince Harry wants to leave me a comment below). It falls in the same broader category of subjunctive mood uses—hypotheticals and wishes—so it too takes “were.”
“Was” is only correct when the situation does exist in reality:
“I wanted to know if Anju was looking for a new roommate.”
In this case, Anju either is or isn’t looking for a roommate. It’s a real possibility, not a desire that isn’t possibly real like in the examples above, so it’s not in the subjunctive mood.
What Kinds of GMAT Subjunctive Mood Questions Are There?
Subjunctive mood GMAT questions test you on both categories of subjunctive mood use cases: suggestions/demands and hypotheticals/wishes. You’ll be expected to recognize when a sentence should be using the subjunctive, and to be able to correct it accordingly using the two rules above.
We’ll go over some example subjunctive mood GMAT questions below, so you can see what this looks like in action.
Example GMAT Subjunctive Mood Questions
Below, we analyze an example of each kind of subjunctive mood question. We also give you one example of a tricky sentence that does not need the subjunctive mood, so that you can learn to recognize subjunctive mood “fakeouts” as well.
Example Subjunctive Mood GMAT Question #1: Suggestions/Demands
The following is an official GMAT question:
The budget for education reflects the administration’s demand that the money is controlled by local school districts, but it can only be spent on teachers, not on books, computers, or other materials or activities.
(A) the money is controlled by local school districts, but it can only be spent
(B) the money be controlled by local school districts, but it allows them to spend the money only
(C) the money is to be controlled by local school districts, but allowing it only to be spent
(D) local school districts are in control of the money, but it allows them to spend the money only
(E) local school districts are to be in control of the money, but it can only spend it
The phrase “demand that” indicates that this sentence should be in the subjunctive mood, so it will take the base form of the verb. In this case, the verb is “to be controlled” (“control” in the passive construction), so it’s going to take the base form of “to be” with controlled. So, we’re looking for the option that uses “be controlled.”
A, D, and E can be crossed off immediately, as they are written in the indicative and thus don’t use the base form of “be.” (C) looks good at first, but “is to be controlled” is still actually indicative (“is”). Get rid of it as well.
Read with (B), the sentence reads: “The budget for education reflects the administration’s demand that the money be controlled by local school districts, but it allows them to spend the money only on teachers, not on books, computers, or other materials or activities.” This is a correct use of the subjunctive and is the answer.
Example Subjunctive Mood GMAT Question #2: Hypotheticals/Wishes
The following is a PrepScholar GMAT question very much like one you might see on a real test:
As if the doubly reinforced window was not enough, the jail also uses panoptical surveillance and a barbed wire fence around the perimeter to ensure that the dangerous prisoner can never escape.
(A) the doubly reinforced window was not enough, the jail also uses panoptical surveillance
(B) the window having been doubly reinforced was not enough, the jail also uses panoptical surveillance
(C) the doubly reinforced window is not enough, the jail also uses surveillance of the panoptical variety,
(D) the doubly reinforced window were not enough, the jail also uses panoptical surveillance
(E) the doubly reinforced window is not to be enough, the jail also uses panoptical surveillance
At first glance, this looks like an issue of tense: should it be “was not enough” or “is not enough”? But that’s actually not the problem with the sentence as written. Rather, this sentence poses a hypothetical: we’re exploring the unlikely possibility that the doubly reinforced window isn’t strong enough to ensure that the prisoner can’t escape. As such, this scenario doesn’t exist in reality and it needs to be put in the subjunctive mood.
Only (D) correctly employs the past subjunctive “were.” (D) is the answer.
Extra Example: A GMAT Question that DOES NOT Need the Subjunctive Mood (But Might Trick You)
The following is an official GMAT question:
A wildlife expert predicts that the reintroduction of the caribou into northern Minnesota would fail if the density of the timber wolf population in that region is more numerous than one wolf for every 39 square miles.
(A) would fail if the density of the timber wolf population in that region is more numerous
(B) would fail provided the density of the timber wolf population in that region is more
(C) should fail if the timber wolf density in that region was greater
(D) will fail if the density of the timber wolf population in that region is greater
(E) will fail if the timber wolf density in that region were more numerous
You might be tempted to pick (E), as it looks like it “corrects” the sentence by using the past subjunctive “were” instead of the present indicative “is.” However, the subjunctive is only used for non-real situations: things that haven’t happened in the past, are not happening now, and aren’t likely to happen in the future.
In this case, we have a “wildlife expert” making a prediction about what is likely to happen in the future—based on what is real about right now. In other words, the one-wolf-per-39-miles population size is a current possible reality, unlike my becoming the Queen of England. Therefore, “to be” should not take hypothetical subjunctive mood and is correct in the indicative mood, present tense.
However, the sentence isn’t entirely correct as written: the prediction for what will happen to the caribou if this scenario turns out to be true should be described with the future tense (“will fail if”), not the conditional tense (“would fail if”). It also needs to use “greater than” as opposed to “more numerous than,” since we’re talking about the collective singular noun “population.”
With (D), the sentence reads: “A wildlife expert predicts that the reintroduction of the caribou into northern Minnesota will fail if the density of the timber wolf population in that region is greater than one wolf for every 39 square miles. This correctly puts the verb “fail” in the indicative mood, future tense; keeps “is” in the indicative mood, present tense; and changes “more numerous than” to “greater than.” Hence, (D) is the correct answer.
3 Key Tips for Subjunctive Mood GMAT Questions
Here’s how to nail every kind of subjunctive mood question that you’ll see on the GMAT.
Tip #1: Memorize The Two Subjunctive Mood Rules
This one is a given: there are only two main subjunctive mood rules that you need to know for the GMAT: to use the base form of the word with “that” subjunctives (demands and suggestions), and to use the past subjunctive “were” for sentences with hypotheticals/wishes. Commit them to memory now.
Tip #2: Write Down Subjunctive Mood Examples That You Read
Look out for the subjunctive mood in sources like The Atlantic and The New York Times. When you see it in action, write down the example you came across in a notebook or in the notes section of your iPhone. This will help you become more familiar with its many uses.
You should also start implementing the subjunctive rules in your everyday writing. You’ll be surprised at how many instances of the subjunctive mood you’ve been missing—and how it easy it is to get it right with just those two rules!
Tip #3: Practice, Practice, Practice!
Subjunctive mood questions aren’t very common, but they will come up in your GMAT sentence correction practice from time to time. The more you practice with GMAT sentence correction questions, the more you’ll become familiar with complex sentences in the subjunctive mood, and the better you’ll get at spotting them on the real test. You’ll also get better at spotting the kinds of sentences that shouldn’t be in the subjunctive mood (but seem like they should be at first), so you won’t be fooled by questions like the last example above.
One great resource for practicing sentence correction questions (including the subjunctive mood ones) is The Official Guide for GMAT Verbal Review. The book includes 300 official practice questions from retired GMATs, access to an accompanying site where you can customize sets of practice questions, reviews of grammar and reading comprehension fundamentals, and online videos with tips and strategies specific to the verbal section.
Another solid option is the Kaplan GMAT Verbal Workbook, which contains about 220 unofficial GMAT verbal questions, with nearly 100 of those questions devoted to sentence correction.
The subjunctive mood isn’t the only quirky grammatical concept tested by the GMAT, so be sure to review our guide to the six grammar rules that you need to know for the GMAT.
If the Verbal section in general is challenging for you, head to our post on how to master the three Verbal question types.
We can also help you find the best GMAT Verbal practice once you’re ready to dive in.