Remember the rap song “I Wish” from the 90s? Skee-Lo says, “I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller.” Saying “I wish I was” is correct, right? It’s not. To express his wishes, Skee-Lo should’ve used the subjunctive mood: “I wish I were a little bit taller, I wish I were a baller.” (Nevertheless, that song earned Skee-Lo a Grammy nomination.)

So what is the English subjunctive? The English subjunctive is a type of verb mood. It indicates a hypothetical state or an opinion, belief, desire, or intention. It’s rarer than moods such as the imperative (Do that!) and the indicative (I did that). A few examples of the subjunctive are as follows:

If I were an elephant, I would have a trunk. (Instead of “If I was an elephant, I would have a trunk.”)

In this example, were is used for the part of the sentence that expresses what is not true, and the helping verb would is used for the other part.

God bless you! (Rather than “God blesses you.”)

This sentence expresses a desire for God to bless you. What you’re really saying is “May God bless you.”

I recommend that Sarah apply to several colleges at once. (Rather than “I recommend that Sarah applies to several colleges at once.)

This statement is a recommendation, which may or may not be followed.

Part of the reason the English subjunctive is so difficult to understand is that its definition varies widely, depending on where you look. Some grammarians separate the traditional subjunctive mood into present subjunctive and past subjunctive; some divide it into the subjunctive and irrealis moods. It originated in Old English, but has been on the decline since the 1600s; today, we only use it in a few circumstances. It’s more common for speakers to use “would” and “could” to indicate statements that are contrary to reality. To keep it simple, remember that when you’re indicating conditions that aren’t true, like being taller and a baller when you’re short and un-athletic, you need to use the subjunctive.