d. Mood

Verbs have Moods?

Sentences can be classified in one of four ways, depending on their purpose: the declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory sentences.

Verbs are an important part of that classification, and a related quality of verbs in those kinds of sentences is called modality, expressed by the mood of a verb in certain sentences. Grammarians have discussed and classified verb moods in several ways, but, generally, English verbs are said to have four moods, three of them corresponding with the classifications of sentence purpose:

  • Verbs in the indicative mood are those that appear in declarative sentences (Joshua went away).
  • Verbs in the interrogative mood appear in interrogative sentences (Did Joshua go?). The use of the do auxiliary in questions is often a mark of the interrogative mood.
  • Verbs in the imperative mood appear in imperative sentences (Go away!). The disappearance of the subject and some auxiliaries is often a mark of the imperative.

Exclamatory sentences have no special form or structure.

There’s a fourth mood, and it’s the important one at the moment because it’s useful in creating sentences that don’t correspond neatly to the four-way classification:

  • Verbs in the conditional mood express necessity and possibility.

We create verbs in the conditional mood using a subset of the auxiliary verbs that are called the modal auxiliaries:

  • can and could
  • shall and should
  • will and would
  • may, must, and might

These modal auxiliary verbs are always the first auxiliary in the complete verb, and they help us discuss various kinds of necessary, possible, or permitted actions. Notice the differences (some subtle) among these sentences:

I can go to the store. I could go to the store.
I shall go to the store. I should go to the store.
I will go to the store. I would go to the store.
I may go to the store. I must go to the store.
I might go to the store.


Often we clarify and reinforce the conditional nature of these sentences with some modifier or additional clause, as in I could go to the store if I may borrow your car.

Notice that all of the sentences above are in some way about future possible events. So it’s not surprising that one of the modal auxiliaries we use often is will, because we use it for future-tense verbs: will drive, will have driven, will be driving.

This has had interesting consequences for another modal, shall, which we don’t use much anymore.

According to prescriptive grammar, shall should be used for future tenses only when the subject is in the first person; will should be reserved for future tenses when the subject is second- or third-person:

Example 1

Today I shall read that article.

Today they will read that article.

This conservative use of will and shall also prescribes that will should be used for the first person and shall for the second and third persons when we express an emphatic determination to perform a future action:

Example 2

You may try to stop me, but I will read that article.

You may try to stop them, but they shall read that article.

Because many U. S. readers and writers are unaware of these distinctions, writers commonly use will in many cases where we once used shall. But shall is still preserved in some contexts, as in certain questions:

Example 3

  • Shall we move on now?
  • Let’s continue, shall we?


Another careful distinction is sometimes made between the auxiliaries may and might, recognizing might as the past tense of may. This distinction is today seldom recognized but is still used, as in these sentences:

Example 4

I may be able to help if I have the time.

Last week I might have been able to help.

The Subjunctive Mood

Another mood grammarians sometimes identify is the subjunctive mood. It appears in statements about hypothetical situations: e.g., suggestions, wishes, speculations, and prayers. The verb is usually the same as in the indicative mood, but in some cases, especially using the verb to be, there’s a difference. The subjunctive often appears in traditional or conventional sentences:

Example 5

Blessed be this daily bread!

I move that this meeting be adjourned.

Sometimes we combine the subjunctive in one clause with the conditional mood in another clause:

Example 6

If I were you, I would tell him off.

If he weren’t so lazy, he could be a millionaire.


Increasingly in present-day English, we don’t use distinctly subjunctive verbs. Instead, we rely on other means to express the hypothetical nature of these ideas. Compare these pairs of sentences, in which the first sentence is in the subjunctive mood:

Example 7

I suggest that Ed drop the matter.

I think that Ed should drop the matter.

If Dad were here, he would know what to do.

If Dad was here, he would know what to do.


The use of was in the last example is now regarded by many as acceptable, though the If indicates the hypothetical nature of the first clause.




“Mood” was adapted from “VERBS HAVE MOODS” of  Brehe’s Grammar Anatomy (Steven Brehe, University of North Georgia), used according to creative commons CC BY-SA 4.0.  Access for free at https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/english-textbooks/20/


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