What is Past Subjunctive?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Past subjunctive is a term in traditional grammar for the use of were in a clause that expresses an unreal or hypothetical condition in present, past, or future time (for example, "If I were you . . .").

Also known as the "were-subjunctive" and the "irrealis were," the past subjunctive differs from the past indicative only in the first- and third-person singular of the past tense of be. The past subjunctive is primarily used in subordinate clauses that begin with (as) if or though.

Examples and Observations

  • "[Her eye] was prominent, and showed a great deal of the white, and looked as steadily, as unwinkingly, at you as if it were a steel ball soldered in her head."
    (Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, 1849)
  • "If she were truly sorry or even not sure she was right, she might apologize, but in this case she'd be lying."
    (Cliff Coon, The Mending String, 2004)
  • "How can a person start off from Grand Isle to Mexico at a moment's notice, as if he were going over to Klein's or to the wharf or down to the beach?"
    (Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 1899)
  • "I always feel a little uneasy when I'm with Marie Strickland, though not uncomfortable enough to wish she weren't here."
    (P.D. James, The Murder Room, 2003)
  • "Suppose he were to come back to Paris and challenge Bunny to a duel?"
    (Upton Sinclair, Oil! 1927)
  • "O would that she were here,
    That fair and gentle thing,
    Whose words are musical as strains
    Breathed by the wind-harp's string."
    (G.P. Morris, "Lines for Music")

    An Untensed Form

    • "The meaning of the past subjunctive is not factual but counterfactual (e.g. [ I wish] he were here; If I were you . . .) or tentative (e.g. I would be surprised if he were to do that). . . .
    • "[T]he subjunctive were is not a relative tense form. Since, obviously, it is not an absolute tense form either (i.e. it does not relate its situation to the temporal zero-point), it can only be treated as an 'untensed' form. In this respect it resembles nonfinite verb forms, i.e. infinitives, participles and gerunds." (Renaat Declerck, Susan Reed, and Bert Cappelle, The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006)

      Formal Usage

      • "When the past subjunctive is used, a reference to a hypothetical or to a counterfactual situation is made, which may lie in the present, the past or the future (Example 10):
      (9) you could read page one-twenty-four, as if it were all simple past, right?
      (MICASE LEL300SU076)

      (10) [...] Jimmie wishes/wished/will wish his girlfriend were with him.
      (example by Depraetere & Reed 2006: 271)
      • The form were is used especially following constructions that express volition, such as the verbs wish and suppose (I wish he were here), the conjunctions as if, if only, as, though, whether (if I were you . . .), and the phrases would rather and would that (would that he were still alive). In non-formal contexts, however, the past form is often replaced by the past indicative was (I wish he was here) (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 86-89; Quirk et al. 1985: 148; 1013), i.e. modal preterite. So the past subjunctive counts as the more formal variant." (Alexander Bergs and Lena Heine, "Mood in English." Mood in the Languages of Europe, ed. by Björn Rothstein and Rolf Thieroff. John Benjamins, 2010)

      Correctness and Acceptability

      • "Acceptability is not absolute, but is a matter of degree; one expression may be more or less acceptable than another. 'If I were in your shoes' may be judged more acceptable than 'If I was in your shoes,' but both are considerably more acceptable than 'If we was in your shoes.' Moreover, acceptability is not abstract, but is related to some group of people whose response it reflects." (John Algeo and Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)