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Concourse 2


How are you feeling?

Mood has been variously defined and is very variable across languages.  In English, however, the system is reasonably straightforward.  So much so that many grammars ignore the category altogether and it rarely makes an appearance in materials for learners.  However, if you are learning a range of other languages, mood is a very important aspect of the verb to consider.

Mood is closely related to modality in the same way that it can be said that time is related to tense.  Mood and tense are grammatical or syntactical categories but time and modality are semantic categories to do with the meaning of the language we select.
You can visualise the relationship like this:
Just as there is no one-to-one relationship between time and tense (with many tense forms indicating times other than their grammatical forms would imply) so the relationship between mood and modality is complex and often unpredictable.  For much more, you should consult the guides to the various types of modality, linked in the list of related guides at the end.

A strict definition of mood refers to the fact that it is indicated by morphological changes to verb forms.  This means, for example, that English has no conditional mood per se because the conditional is signalled by a periphrastic structure.  In English, therefore, we encounter:
    John would stay if you needed him
and the conditional mood is represented by the structure would stay.  In other languages, such as German, both a periphrastic form similar to English and a change to the verb form itself can be used so that sentence can be translated as either:
    John würde bleiben, wenn du ihn brauchst
or as:
    John bliebe, wenn du ihn brauchst
In most European languages, the conditional mood takes the same form as the subjunctive (see below) but not in all.
That sentence in French, for example, translates as:
    John resterait si tu avais besoin de lui
and in Portuguese as:
    John ficaria se você precisasse dele
and in both cases the conditional mood is represented by the changes to the form of the verb in bold here).
There is a little more on this below with some other examples.

If we take this strict definition of mood to involve a change to the verb form, we conclude that English signals only three moods.


Three moods in English

Although theoretical grammars will identify a considerable (and confusing) number of possible moods by referring to languages other than English (of which a little more later), in English grammar three moods are identifiable.

  1. The indicative mood
    is used to discuss real events either in declarative (positive and negative) or interrogative clauses.
    For example:
        She made the cake
        Do you have the time?

        She is not my sister
        Don't you know the answer?
    Declarative, negative and interrogative clauses are signalled by verbal inflexions in English, for example, the -s ending on singular, third-person, present simple verb forms and the other changes that are made to verbs to show past tense.
    Negative and interrogative clauses are also signalled in some tense forms by the operator do.  In other tense forms and with auxiliary verbs, the interrogative is signalled by word order changes, as it is in many languages.
    The interrogative is sometimes considered a distinct subcategory of the indicative and that is the line taken in the summary on this page.
    The indicative mood is sometimes called a realis mood, because it denotes that the speaker is concerned with addressing facts, not hypotheses or possibilities.
    Some languages retain a special form of the indicative to express general truths rather than truths at the time of speaking.  English does not except in its use of the present simple verb form for that kind of indication.
    Other moods, discussed below are called irrealis moods.
  2. The Imperative mood
    In English, the form of the verb used in imperative sentences is the simple base form as in, for example:
        Come here!
        Don't do that!

        Please go to the manager's office
    The imperative expresses commands, prohibitions, and requests.  In English, there is only one pure form of the imperative, the bare stem of the verb, but other languages may have a special morphological change to the verb to show imperative mood.  English, too, has ways of softening imperatives that do not use the base stem of the verb so, for example:
        Why don't we try a bit harder?
    can be considered an imperative rather than a suggestion depending on who is talking to whom.  Between equals, it is a suggestion but from a teacher to a child it is clearly an imperative.
    The distinction being made here is between a command and a hortation: an order and an attempt to persuade.
    In many languages, too, there is a first-person plural form of the imperative which does not exist in English.  So, for example, in French:
        Allons à la maison
        Let's go home.
    Learners from language backgrounds which have the first-person plural imperative may struggle to express the thought in English and neglect to use the correct form of let, which, often and confusingly, means allow.
    English is slightly unusual in allowing a progressive aspect form of the verb in imperative mood clauses so
        Be standing near the post office
        Don't be working too hard
    are both possible, if slightly rare.
    There is another distinction here which is not immediately obvious because the form is shared although the function is quite different.  For example:
        Go to bed
        Come here
    are clearly imperative mood statements requiring action but:
        Sleep well
        Go home safely
    although they look the same in terms of structure are optative (i.e., expresses a wish) rather than imperative.
    There's a slightly grey area here because an utterance such as:
        Enjoy your evening
    could be interpreted as an imperative to mean:
        Please try to enjoy your evening
    or as an optative statement meaning:
        I hope you enjoy your evening.
    In English, there is no way to separate the meanings but other languages would have a different verb form for the two statements.
    In some languages, such as Modern Greek the negative imperative mood differs structurally from the positive so there is a difference between:
        Go and ask him
        Don't go and ask him
    signalled by the form of the verb or a particle.
  3. The subjunctive mood
    is used rarely in English because the language usually prefers to express meanings of doubt, uncertainty, hypothetical states and likelihoods with its range of central, semi- and marginal modal auxiliary verbs.
    The subjunctive, widely used and marked by changes to the verb in many languages, refers to the wished for, hypothetical or mandatory.
    For this reason, some grammars consider the conditional in English to be a mood in itself.  The use of would in, for example:
        If I hadn't been so tired, I would have been able to finish
    is derived from the old subjunctive form of the verb will.
    There are two forms of the subjunctive in English:
    1. The stem of the verb, often appearing in that-clauses, as in, e.g.:
          It is necessary that he be the leader
          I demanded that she re-do the paper
      Some fixed expressions left over from earlier forms of English such as:
          So be it
          Heaven be praised
          She will do the work, come what may
          If need be, I'll help
    2. were, the past subjunctive of be.
      Examples are:
          If I were you, I wouldn't do that
          I wish I were a rich man

In the above, we have considered declarative and interrogative moods as just types of the indicative mood.
In some analyses, indicative and declarative are treated as synonyms.

Here is a cut-out-and-keep summary with some examples only of the three moods recognised in English in most traditional grammars.



Other languages, other moods

Other languages make much greater use of mood and often rely on changes to the verbs or affixation to signal what in English will usually be expressed via the use of modal auxiliary verbs.  This is the root of a good deal of error because adult learners, in particular, will often expect the language they are learning to have parallel structures to their first languages.
In what follows, there is some overlap because different languages are described in different ways using overlapping terminology in many cases.

A range of other moods is evident in these languages.  For example:

  1. The conditional
    English conditional forms rely on modal auxiliary verbs, notably will, would, could, may and might, to express the hypothetical nature of a situation so we have, for example:
        If you come early you will get a good seat
        If you were to do that it would be a mistake
        I could help if you like
        Help me with this and I'll buy you dinner
        If the snow gets worse the roads might be blocked
        If you ask him, you may be able to get a straight answer

    In many other languages, the conditional forms an identifiable mood in itself, signalled by changes to the form of the verb.  Learners who look for such changes in English will look in vain.
    Most Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc.) make full use of the subjunctive forms of verbs in conditional sentences and German, too, has both a present and past form of the subjunctive (but that is often replaced by a periphrastic form akin to English).  For example, the sentence:
        I will walk if I have time
    In French: Je marcherai si j'ai le temps
    In German: Ich ginge (zu Fuss) wenn ich Zeit habe
    In Spanish: Caminaré si tengo tiempo
    etc. and the form of the verb expresses the conditional or hypothetical nature of the situation in each case.
    That English does not have a single verb form to do this, is a source of a good deal of error.
    In a few languages, a distinction is made between conditional forms referring to possibilities and those which are purely hypothetical.  The hypothetical mood may be signalled by a specific verbal inflexion in these languages.
  2. The optative
    There is a guide on this site to suasion (linked below) which includes consideration of the optative.
    Briefly, the mood mostly expresses hopes and wishes (and sometimes overlaps with commands and imperatives).  Examples in English are:
        I wish it would get warmer (a probably hopeless desire)
        Let him try!
        I wish you would listen
    (an imperative)
        I wish I had studied harder (a conditional form)
    Some languages reserve a particular verb form for optative expressions but English relies mostly on modal auxiliary verbs or subjunctive forms as the examples show.
    In most languages, the optative form is the same as the subjunctive form used for conditional clauses but some languages, including Albanian, Kazakh, Japanese, Finnish and Nepali reserve a distinct optative form.
    One language, Turkish, also has a negative optative mood called the imprecative which is reserved for wishing for something bad to happen to someone.
  3. The jussive mood
    This mood simply does not exist in English and needs to be expressed on a wholly different way.  However, in Arabic, for example, there is a distinct verb form for an imperative aimed not at the hearer but at a third person who may or may not be present.  That's what is meant by the jussive.  An example in English is
        I wish he would work more
    in which the wish is expressed concerning another person.
  4. The potential mood
    This mood expresses degrees of probability which in English are expressed through modal auxiliary verbs as in, for example:
        She ought to be here soon
        That should be the train we want
        He must have been crazy to spend so much on a coat

    This mood exists as a distinct verb form in, for example, Japanese and Finnish.  In the former, it is often described as the tentative mood because it expresses the ability to do something which may not, in fact, have been done.  In English, an example is:
        I didn't need to call her
    which expresses the tentative nature of the proposition and probably means either:
        I called her but it was unnecessary (as it turned out)
        There was no need to call her (so I didn't)
    The situation is made more complex in English by having an alternative form:
        I needn't have called her
    which only means
        It was not necessary to call her (but I did)
  5. The inferential mood
    is almost impossible to translate into English but in languages such as Bulgarian and Turkish, it is a form of the verb which distinguishes between an event that the speaker witnessed and one which is inferred, either because the speaker was not present or because the event occurred a very long time ago.
    The mood has various names depending on which language is being discussed but it exists in many Balkan languages and Estonian (in which it is usually called the oblique mood).
    In English, the mood may be expressed using a modal auxiliary verb such as in:
        She must have left (although I did not see her leave)
    or in indicative forms such as
        I presume she has left
        It is said / I have heard that she has left


Teaching implications

One would rarely set out to teach mood in English but a knowledge of how other people's languages deal with the area and what moods are expressible in them is important if the topic of modal auxiliary verbs (of any sort) is to be effectively handled.

In particular:

Related guides
modality index where you will find links to many guides to types of and ways of expressing modal concepts.  Mood and modality are closely related.
condition and concession for more on some uses of the subjunctive to express mood
the subjunctive for a short guide to this rarely used form (in English)
semi-modal auxiliary verbs for a guide which includes consideration of let and much else
suasion for more about wish and other optative forms which are often combined with the subjunctive and imperative forms