Prescriptive Rules: Subjunctive

 The subjunctive case in English has been around about as long as the language itself. Today we use it in fixed formulas (so be it, be that as it may, Heaven forbid, come what may), in the "mandative subjunctive" or in the common parliamentary formula (clauses following verbs like ask, demand, recommend, insist, suggest; I demand that the chairman resign), with verbs of wishing (I wish I were taller), and in contrary-to-fact conditional clauses (If I were taller...). "Its chief characteristic for most verbs," we read in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "is a lack of inflection, and so it is only noticeable when it turns up in a context calling for an inflection." Because of this, we mostly only see the subjunctive with third person pronouns, and to be verbs. Most of the confict with the subjunctive centers around the use of indicative was instead of the subjunctive were with verbs of wishing and in contrary-to-fact conditional clauses, which is becoming increasingly common, as well as the fact that neither construction requires the subjunctive case with other verbs.
Overall, the use of the subjunctive, both present and past, has decreased over the last 200 years.
Surprisingly, in both COCA and the BNC, the be form is used most in fiction. At the same time, were is used more in academic writing in the U.S., while British speakers are more likely to use it.
                                                                                                                           [pn*] be/[pn*] be|are|is and he|she|it|i were/he|she|it|i was in BNC                     
I was also surpised to see a rise in the use of the mandative subjunctive (at least with the construction I searched) overtime in Googlebooks.
[ask, demand, suggest, insist] that * [v?i*]/[ask, demand, suggest, insist] that * [v*] in Googlebooks

In comparing the British and American use of the mandative, we get a few similarities and differences. Where Americans are more likely to use "ask" in academic writing Brits are more likely to "demand." Both are likely to use the "ask" form in newspapers, but the pattern in speech differs in both countries.  
   [ask, demandsuggestinsist] that * [v?i*]/[ask, demand, suggest, insist] that * [v*] in COCA                   

[ask, demand, suggest, insist] that * [v?i*]/[ask, demand, suggest, insist] that * [v*] in BNC

The "wish/were" subjunctive has stayed relatively stable over the last 200 years. There is a slight decrease, but it's still in pretty high use in comparison with the "wish/was" form. 


wish he|she|it|i were/wish he|she|it|i was in COHA

I was surprised by how close all of the genres were across COCA. Magazine and academic writing used it the most, with the other coming close behind. In the BNC the genres weren't as close. Academic writing took a large lead in the use of the "wish/were" subjunctive over the other genres.


With the "if" subjunctive, I found two different patterns overall. When looking at all subjunctive verbs in this construction there is a steady decrease since 1810, which is what I expected for every form. There was also a huge difference between academic writing and other genres. When comparing "if/were" and "if/was" we see a steady use of the subjunctive form, with very little decrease toward the last 50 years or so.
                                   if he|she|is were/if he|she|it was in COCA                                  if he|she|is were/if he|she|it was in BNC