Number one for English language teachers

Grammar: mood and modality 1

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Teaching notes

Jonathan Marks explains the difference between mood and modality.

I find I need to be able to explain in simple terms the difference between mood and modality. I would like to explain how it occurs in our everyday language. The text I have consulted speaks in a tongue beyond my understanding. Can you please explain the difference in simple terms. Many thanks.

Cassandra Harrison

This reply is in two parts. See the related page at the bottom of this article for the second half of this question. 

Reply by Jonathan Marks

'Mood' and 'modality' are separate components of grammar, but they're related in origin and to some extent in meaning.

The word 'modal' is, in origin, connected with the mode, manner, or fashion of doing something, rather than the substance. But from the 16th century onwards, it was used in logic and philosophy to refer to propositions involving the affirmation of possibility and impossibility, existence and non-existence, contingency and necessity, and this is the meaning that has been taken into grammar.

'Mood', as used in grammar, is also derived from 'mode', but at some stage the vowel changed by association with the completely different word 'mood', meaning a state of mind (e.g. a good/bad mood).

If we wanted to make a very broad distinction between different kinds of meanings we express in language, we could say that the sentence we met at the pub expresses a straightforward fact objectively, whereas the following sentences are basically 'about' the same thing, but show the speaker (or writer, of course) taking different approaches towards it:

Meet me at the pub

When did we meet at the pub?

Shall we meet at the pub?

We must have met at the pub

I could meet you at the pub, if you like

If we met at the pub, we could have a chat about things

We find out about the speaker's attitude towards, or perception of, an event which may or may not take place, or have taken place. Mood and modality are both concerned, in their different ways, with this distinction between objective statement and speaker-centredness.

Mood

Let's start with mood. Descriptions of English grammar usually recognize up to four 'moods':

1. declarative (or indicative)

2. interrogative

3. imperative

4. subjunctive

Sometimes 'indicative' is used to include declarative (statements) and interrogative (questions). (Some languages have other 'moods', apart from these three or four.)

Declarative

These sentences would be regarded as examples of the 'declarative mood':

We always meet at the same pub.

I've never met him.

Declarative sentences express statements, but they often have other functions too:

You've left the light on. (This can mean 'Turn it off'.)

Declarative sentences typically have subject + verb word order. But sometimes there's no subject:

Don't know where he is. Probably missed his train.

- and sometimes the subject is after the verb:

Then came the prize-giving.

- or between the auxiliary and main verbs:

Rarely have I seen such incompetence.

Interrogative

These sentences would be regarded as examples of the 'interrogative mood':

When was the last time we met?

Do you want tea or coffee?

Interrogative sentences express questions, but they often have other functions too:

Do you think I'm made of money? (This can mean 'Stop asking me for money.')

What did I tell you? (This can mean 'I told you so.')

And there are other ways of asking questions:

I suppose you'd like something to eat.

I'd like to know the train times for Sunday.

In interrogative sentences, the subject is typically after the verb (if there's only one verb) or between the auxiliary and main verbs. But sometimes the order is subject + verb:

You did what?!

Imperative

These sentences would be regarded as examples of the 'imperative mood':

Mind the step.

Switch the appliance off and remove the plug from the socket.

Don't just stand there!

See chapter 2.

Come round at the weekend.

Imperative sentences express directives, such as orders, instructions, requests, invitations etc. They typically have a verb with no subject and in the infinitive form - except for 'be', this is the same as the non-3rd person singular present simple. 'Don't' can be put before the verb to form negatives. But positive imperatives can also include an auxiliary 'do', and the subject can be included in positives or negatives:

Do be careful.

Don't mention it.

You stay here.

Don't you tell me what to do!

There may also be a 'please' or a question tag appended:

Come over here, please.

Be quiet, will you?

Some languages have specific imperative verb forms, but English doesn't: the form of the verb used in an imperative sentence is the infinitive.

Subjunctive

And these sentences, finally, would be regarded as examples of the 'subjunctive mood':

I demand that this barrier be opened.

They suggested that she wait a little longer.

... as if he were dreaming.

Long live the president!

Subjunctive sentences express 'uncertainty', 'unreality', 'hypotheses', 'wishes', etc. They often contain verb forms different from those that would be used in equivalent indicative sentences:

I demand that this barrier be opened.

cf. This barrier is opened .....

They suggested that she wait a little longer.

cf. She waits / waited .....

... as if he were dreaming.

cf. He was dreaming.

Long live the president!

cf. The president lives .....

But sometimes the verb forms would be the same in indicative sentences:

I suggest that you wait a little longer.

cf. You wait .....

... as if they were dreaming.

 cf. They were dreaming.

Long live the whales!

 cf. The whales live .....

 

 

 

 

Some languages, e.g. German, Spanish, French, Latin, Old English, etc. have some specific subjunctive verb forms, different from indicative forms. For example, look at these third person plural forms of the verb be:

 

 

present indicative

present subjunctive

past indicative

past subjunctive

German

sind

seien

waren

wären

Old English

sindon

sien

wæron

wæren

As you can see from the example sentences above, modern English doesn't have separate indicative and subjunctive forms; the forms which are called 'subjunctive' are:

 

1. the infinitive (which also, with the exception of be, serves as the non-3rd person singular present simple.)

 

2. were, i.e. the past tense plural form of be.

 

Some fixed phrases with subjunctives, such as If I were you ..., as it were, Long live ..., be that as it may and so be it are probably best learned as idioms. (Long live ... can also be regarded as a third person imperative.)

The word 'subjunctive' means 'placed underneath, subordinated, added at the end', and derives from a Latin translation from Greek; it was used in classical Greek because in that language the subjunctive mood is used almost exclusively in subordinate clauses, and in English, too, it most often appears in subordinate clauses. But because it doesn't have its own specific verb forms in English, I don't find it a very useful concept in English grammar, except maybe as way of referring to a very broad type of meaning: uncertainty, unreality, hypotheses, wishes, etc.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Hi Xmpp Texting,

    Thanks for your feedback. While it may seem awkward, 'were' is correct here as the subjunctive expresses unreal or conditional mood and in these constructions the verb 'to be' changes to the past tense plural form.

    Hope that helps.

    Best wishes,

    The onestopenglish team

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  • Why a shift in plurality for first person singular in past subjunctive? This is vexatiously awkward: I were.

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  • This article was published in September 2006.

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  • when is this subject posted??? can someone post the date here???

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