What Is the Past Subjunctive?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte.

 

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Past subjunctive is a term in traditional grammar in which were is used in a clause to express an unreal or hypothetical condition in the present, past, or future. For example, "If I were you . . ." is a popular phrase used to describe an impossible imagined scenario in which the speaker is someone else.

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

The past subjunctive form has existed for many years, and it might be more common than you think.

  • "[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," (Bronte 1849).
  • "If she were truly sorry or even not sure she was right, she might apologize, but in this case she'd be lying," (Coon 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?" (Chopin 1899).
  • "I always feel a little uneasy when I'm with Marie Strickland, though not uncomfortable enough to wish she weren't here," (James 2003).
  • "Suppose he were to come back to Paris and challenge Bunny to a duel?" (Sinclair 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," (Morris 1843).

An Untensed Form

The past subjunctive form doesn't fit neatly into any 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," (Declerck et al. 2006).

Formal Usage

Speakers can talk about hypothetical imagined situations in any setting, but the correct use of the past subjunctive is best suited to formal contexts. "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," (Bergs and Heine 2010).

Correctness and Acceptability

English speakers tend to disagree on whether was is acceptable in place of were in the past subjunctive, but authors John Algeo and Thomas Pyles argue that acceptability isn't quite so black and white.

"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," (Algeo and Pyles 2010).

Sources

  • Algeo, John, and Thomas Pyles. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 6th ed., Wadsworth, 2010.
  • Bergs, Alexander, and Lena Heine. "Mood in English." Mood in the Languages of Europe. John Benjamins, 2010.
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley, A Tale. Smith, Elder & Co., 1849.
  • Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1899.
  • Coon, Cliff. The Mending String. Moody Publishers, 2004.
  • Declerck, Renaat, et al. The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.
  • James, P.D. The Murder Room. Faber and Faber, 2003.
  • Morris, G.P. "Oh, Would That She Were Here." The Deserted Bride: And Other Poems. D. Appleton & Co., 1843.
  • Sinclair, Upton. Oil! Albert & Charles Boni Publishing Company, 1927.