Q: A couple of friends insist on using the subjunctive in a conditional clause like this: “Say hello to my brother if he be there when you arrive.” To me, it sounds ungrammatical, never mind this example from Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on.” What do you say?
A: The sentence “Say hello to my brother if he be there when you arrive” is not grammatically correct in modern English.
The proper construction is “if he is there.” Why? Because it’s possible that he will be there.
In modern English (we’ll get to Elizabethan English later), we use the subjunctive with “if” only when the condition is contrary to fact.
Here’s an example: “If she were thinner, she’d be more confident” (she’s not thinner, so the condition mentioned is not a fact).
There’s a lot of confusion over what constitutes the subjunctive mood. It’s not the same as the conditional; not all conditional clauses have verbs in the subjunctive mood.
Here’s a passage from Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, that you might find helpful:
“CONDITIONAL CLAUSE. A clause that starts with if, as if, as though, or some other expression of supposition. The verb in a conditional clause has an attitude: that is, it takes on different forms, or ‘moods,’ depending on the speaker’s attitude or intention toward what’s being said. When the clause states a condition that’s contrary to fact, the verb is in the subjunctive mood (If I were you . . . ). When the clause states a condition that may be true, the verb is in the indicative mood (If I was late . . . ).”
And here’s a passage, from a post on our blog, that further explains the conditions under which the subjunctive is used in modern English:
“(1) When expressing a wish: ‘I wish the nuclear arsenal were retired.’ (In the subjunctive, ‘was’ becomes ‘were.’)
“(2) When making an ‘if’ statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: ‘If the nuclear arsenal were retired, we’d be safer.’ (Ditto.)
“(3) When something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: ‘We demand that the government retire the nuclear arsenal.’ (In these cases, the verb in the second clause is always in the infinitive, as in ‘I suggest she walk,’ ‘They ordered that he be jailed,’ etc.)”
Note that we said “in modern English.” If Shakespeare were writing today, he wouldn’t use the subjunctive in that passage from Twelfth Night (unless he wanted to sound Elizabethan).
In the past, the subjunctive was used more widely and in different kinds of constructions than it is today. Thus does English change.
Note: We’ve had several items on the blog about obsolete uses of the subjunctive, including a post in 2010 on the use of the verb “be” in Elizabethan times.