The Subjunctive Mood - Uses
Up to now you have used the indicative and imperative moods and the active and passive voices whenever you worked with conjugated verb forms. The imperative form, taken from impero ('command'), is indeed a command form. The indicative, from dico ('say'), is the form that indicates a fact either stated or believed (literally, it indicates 'fact').
The subjunctive mood is harder to recognize in English than it is in Latin. Yes, it does exist in English, as well as in other modern languages. In English we use it in contrary-to-fact statements:
If I were you, I would read that book.
Agatha acts as if she knew everything.
I wish you were my sister.
In these examples the implication is that (a) I am not you, (b) Agatha does not know everything, and (c) you are not my sister. The subjunctive in English is also used following verbs of asking, demanding and recommending:
I am home by 10 p.m. Mother asked that I be home by 10 p.m.
John will finish the paper on time. The professor recommended that John finish the paper on time.
The cook tastes the dinner. The unhappy patron demanded that the cook taste the dinner.
Notice the change of verb in the subjunctive clause of each second sentence: I be instead of I am; finish instead of will finish; taste instead of tastes.
In Latin the subjunctive mood is used to represent the predicate as an idea, as something conceived in the mind but abstract or removed from reality: a wish, a doubt, a purpose, a mild command, a condition, and so on. The English helper verbs - may, can, must, might, could, would, should - are frequently used when translating a Latin subjunctive.
1. The Subjunctive in Independent (Main) Clauses
- 'Hortor' means 'urge' and the hortatory subjunctive is used when there is an 'exhortation': the speaker is urging a group, of which the speaker is a part, to do something or to make something happen or be done. The hortatory subjunctive is always in the present tense, always first person plural, and there is no introductory word or phrase, such as 'ut' 'ut non' 'cum': Exeamus = let us go out. Nunc cenemus = let us now dine. The negative hortatory, however, is introduced by ne: Ne diu maneamus = let us not stay long. Ne illum scelestum sequamur = let us not follow that bad man.
- To issue a command or negative command in a more polite form than the imperative, the subjunctive can be used. This use of the subjunctive is addressed to a second or third person; the speaker is not included in the command. Secedant molesti = let the pests depart. Ne timeas = do not be afraid!
- A wish might be described as an even weaker kind of 'command' addressed to the world in general. The wish, unlike a polite command, may be preceded by ut, uti, utinam. A negative wish is preceded by ne or ut non. Vivat princeps = long live the emperor! Ne veniat = may he not come! In periculum ne venias = may you not go into danger! Ne illum amet illa = may she not love him!
- To express a wish that is contrary to present reality, to wish that something were happening now -- but isn't -- the imperfect subjunctive is used: Ut non illum amaret illa = would that she didn't love him (but she does)! To express a wish about something in the past that didn't happen, the pluperfect tense is used. Utinam vixisset Caesar = would that Caesar had lived (but he didn't).
- Commands and wishes can be hard to distinguish from one another, and sometimes context will be your only guide. Here are some examples to compare differences in meaning and clues.
- Hortatory: In periculum ne veniamus = let us not go into danger (we have some control over what will happen)
- Wish: In periculum ne veniamus = may we not go into danger (but we don't have control over what will happen)
- Command: In periculum ne venias = do not go into danger (you have some control)! This is not hortatory because it's not in 1st person.
- Wish: In periculum ne venias = may you not go into danger (but neither you nor I have control).
- Wishfulness: Ut non periculum veniremus = would that we were not going into danger (but we are). The imperfect tense tells us this is not exhortation, command, or a straightforward wish.
- Past wishfulness: Utinam in periculum ne venissemus = would that we had not gone into danger (but we did)
2. The Subjunctive in Dependent (Subordinate) clauses
- Purpose clause, introduced by ut or ne: cucurrit ut nuntium videret = he ran to see the messenger. Missi sunt ut acciperent cibum = they were sent to get food, so that they might get food, in order to get food, for the purpose of obtaining food.
- Relative clause of purpose, introduced by a relative pronoun. Similar to a purpose clause, it uses qui, quae, quod instead of ut or non: Misit milites qui oppidum occuparent = he sent soldiers who might take the town, who would take the town, for the purpose of taking the town.
- Result Clause, introduced by ut or ut non. It states a result of the action of the main clause. The main clause will have tam, sic, ita, or the adjective tantus,-a,-um: Vir tam altus erat ut caput omnia tangeret = the man was so tall that his head touched everything.
- Cum Causal clause, signaled by cum, translated as 'since' or 'because.' It states the cause for the action of the main verb: Cum prima luce profecti essemus, iam defessi eramus = since we had set out at dawn, we were now tired. Cum in periculo non iam essent, deis gratias egerunt = because they were no longer in danger, they thanked the gods.
- Cum Circumstantial clause, introduced by cum, translated as 'when' or 'while' and showing the circumstances prevailing around or preceding the main action: Cum omnes irati essent, raedarius raedam reparabant = while everyone was fuming, the carriage driver was fixing the carriage. (However, if I wanted to emphasize temporal circumstances I would use cum with the indicative mood in a 'cum temporal clause': cum nox advenit = as night came on....)
- Cum Concessive clause, signaled by cum, translated as 'although,' in the dependent clause and tamen, usually, in the main clause and translated as 'nevertheless' or 'still': Cum aeger sit, tamen laborare in animo habet = although he is sick, he still plans to work. Cum in periculo non iam essent, tamen timuerunt = although they were no longer in danger, they were nevertheless afraid.
- Indirect Command, introduced by ut or ne, and following verbs of 'mild' command or request in the main clause, such as impero, rogo, hortatur, persuadeo, moneo. Impero ut quam primum venias = I command that you come as quickly as possible. Suos hortatus est ne delerent oppidum = he urged his men not to destroy the town. (The verbs iubeo, cogo, prohibeo, and veto are exceptions that are followed by an accusative subject + infinitive)
- Indirect Question, introduced by an interrogative word or expression (such as quis? cur?) after verbs such as knowing, asking, seeking. Scio qui te mitteret = I know who sent you. Caesar rogavit cur Labienus montem non occupavisset = Caesar asked why Labienus had not taken the mountain.(Don't confuse this with indirect statement, which uses an accusative subject + infinitive and lacks the interrogative word to introduce it.)
Other uses and forms of the subjunctive will be explored later on, but for now these should keep you busy!
Joan Jahnige, November 1998 (updated 2005)
Sources: AMSCO Review Text, Latin Two Years, Ecce Romani II