A reader from Karaj, Iran, by the name of Farhad H. asked me a few weeks back whether “is” or “be” should be used in the second sentence of the statement below:
“As a matter of fact, ESP (English for Specific Purposes) combines subject matter and English language teaching. Such a combination is highly motivating because students are able to apply what they learn in their English classes to their main field of study, whether it (is, be) accounting, business management, economics, computer science, or tourism.”
Here’s my reply to Farhad:
Frankly, to choose between “whether it is” and “whether it be” in that sentence can just get you bogged down trying to figure out whether the subordinate clause is in the indicative mood or subjunctive mood. This early, therefore, I’ll already tell you that in that clause, the best choice—but not the only choice—is neither the indicative “is” nor the subjunctive “be” but using no linking verb at all, as follows:
“Such a combination is highly motivating because students are able to apply what they learn in their English classes to their main field of study, whether accounting, business management, economics, computer science, or tourism.”
The modifying phrase above is an elliptical construction, where the omission of one or more words that are obviously understood—in this case, “it is” or “it be”—doesn’t change the meaning or sense of the original clause; instead, the excision makes it more readable and better-sounding.
But if that elliptical construction isn’t resorted to, there would indeed be a need to figure out whether that clause is in the indicative or subjunctive mood.
Recall now that the indicative mood conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Statements in this mood seek to give the impression that the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner. As we know, verbs in this mood take their normal inflections in all the tenses and typically obey the subject-verb agreement rule.
In contrast, the subjunctive mood is used to communicate the following: (1) a possibility (2) desire or wishful attitude, (3) insistence on a particular action, (4) doubt about a certain outcome, (5) an unreal situation or an idea contrary to fact, or (6) a request or suggestion. The subjunctive form of the verb is used when the outcome of the action isn’t being asserted as a certainty but is only being supposed, being assumed or feared to be true, or being doubted.
In present-tense subjunctive constructions, however, the linking verb “be” exhibits the deviant behavior of not changing form at all no matter what person or number is taken by the subject. This explains why “be” rather than “is” is used in such subjunctive statements as “Be that as it may” and “The university will also support the Church in its future actions should the bill be passed by Congress.”
To figure out whether that subordinating clause in the statement you presented is in the indicative or subjunctive mood, we have to ask this question: Are the conditions in the clause introduced by “whether” being asserted as objective choices or alternatives, on one hand, or as hoped for or doubtful outcomes, on the other?
By inspection, those conditions—the enumerated main fields of study—are clearly objective choices or alternatives in a real-world situation, not hoped for or doubtful outcomes. That modifying clause is therefore in the indicative mood, and the correct form of the linking verb for it is the indicative “is.”
But then again, as I suggested at the very outset, it would be much better to use elliptical construction—dropping the words “it is”—to make that statement more concise, more readable, and better-sounding.
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