In humans, a mood is a feeling or an emotional state. If you’re in a good mood, for example, you’re feeling happy. But a grammatical mood is something else. So to help explain what a grammatical mood is, let’s look at the indicative, imperative, conditional, and subjunctive moods.
What Is Grammatical Mood?
Grammatical mood refers to how a sentence is constructed to reflect what we’re trying to do. Asking a question, for example, is different to giving a command. Consequently, we use slightly different sentences to do different things. And every sentence has a “mood” accordingly.
Strictly speaking, you don’t need to know which mood you are using at all times to write effectively. And the lines between grammatical moods are sometimes blurred in English, which can be confusing.*
But understanding the basics of mood can help you avoid errors in your writing, so we suggest checking out our guide to the basics below.
The Indicative Mood
We use the indicative mood whenever we express an opinion, make a factual statement or ask a question. For example:
I love sleeping.
He is going to bed.
Has she gone to bed yet?
The indicative mood is thus the most common grammatical mood by far, covering most statements. Depending on who you ask, though, questions can be classed separately as being in the interrogative mood.
Sentences like this can be very short because, as in the first sentence above, the person being asked or told to do something is often left out.
The Conditional Mood
Conditional sentences typically use the modal verbs “could,” “might,” “should,” or “would.” This is because they express something that is uncertain or depends on something else. For instance:
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
He could to go to bed if he wanted to.
The sentence above is conditional because it refers to an outcome (i.e., going to bed) that depends on something else (i.e., wanting to go to bed). In other words, one part of the sentence is conditional on another part.
The Subjunctive Mood
The subjunctive mood concerns hypotheticals, such as wishes or suggestions. Typically, they are also “if” statements, such as:
If I were tired, I would go to bed.
Here, for example, the speaker is not tired. As such, the possibility of going to bed is only raised hypothetically, not as a likely course of action, so the sentence is in the subjunctive mood. This is distinct from the conditional example above, where going to bed is a concrete possibility.
One common error related to the subjunctive mood is mixing up “were” and “was.” The confusion here is rooted in their past tense uses, where “was” is singular and “were” is plural. In the subjunctive mood, however, “were” can be both singular and plural. For instance:
If I were him, I would go to bed. ✓
Were we to go to bed now, we would sleep soundly. ✓
If I was less busy, I would sleep more. ✗
Although a fairly minor error, it’s worth looking out for this in your work. And if you need a little more help telling your subjunctives from your conditionals at any point, don’t forget that we’re always available to proofread your documents, which includes a full grammar check.
* If you have more than two grammarians in a room, at least one will insist there is no such thing as the conditional mood in English. And this can quickly descend into name-calling. Overall, though, we find it easy to ignore this for our day-to-day writing and proofreading needs.