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In the Wikipedia article about the subjunctive mood, I read that the future subjunctive of own for the first person singular is I were to own.

In which situations is the future subjunctive used in English?

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@jlovegren That is not about the future subjunctive. – kiamlaluno Dec 8 '12 at 5:14
@tchrist: In the words of one of my old professors: Can you demonstrate that, or is this the ipse dixit of the new Pythagoras? – Borstal Dec 9 '12 at 19:01
I've only just seen this, but English has no future subjunctive. – Barrie England Dec 9 '12 at 19:03
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I really wouldn’t call that a future subjunctive. It’s merely a periphrastic construct that emphasizes the irregular were so that its counter factuality comes through more strongly. It’s actually a past subjunctive form. Witness:

  1. If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.
  2. If I had a ball, I’d throw it to your dog.
  3. If I ate like that, I’d die.
  4. If I were to eat like that, I’d die.

As you see, there’s no difference between the last two entries. Therefore, there is no future subjunctive here at all.

Compare this with languages that do have a future subjunctive:

  • Por donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. Spanish for “Wherever you go, do as you see.” (When in Rome...)
  • Aunque él me quitare la vida, en él confiaré. Spanish for Job 3:3, “Though He should take my life, in Him shall I trust.”
  • Não entraremos se falarmos assim. Portuguese for “We won’t get in if we talk like that.”
  • Se eu estiver cansado não vou ao cinema. Portuguese for “If I’m tired I won’t go to the cinema.”
  • Logo que eles chegarem, nós começaremos a comer. Portuguese for “We’ll start eating as soon as they get here.”
  • Quando chegares, liga para o escritório. Portuguese for “Once you arrive, call the office.”

By the way, the supposedly future subjunctive case from English would be simply this in Spanish:

  • Si comiese así, me moriría. Spanish for “If I ate like that, I’d die.”

The first clause is in the past subjunctive and the second is in the conditional.

I’ve never before heard English described as somehow having a future subjunctive: would that it were so! I submit that that particular Wikipedia page has simply gotten it wrong.

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Note: Spanish no longer has a distinct future subjunctive: it now uses the present subjunctive for the future. And "comiese" is imperfect subjunctive, to distinguish from the other past subjunctives. – Peter Taylor Apr 4 '11 at 6:29
Indeed, this “subjunctive” is usually called “irrealis” to distinguish from “real” subjunctive, as in “We insist the he be on time” – nohat Apr 5 '11 at 20:02
This one has been puzzling me too. Wikipedia is the only place I can find that refers to 'were to' as a future subjunctive. And what do we then call its past version -'were to have done' - 'If he were to have won the election, the outcome would have been disastrous.' – RandomIdeaEnglish Jan 14 '12 at 18:29

"If I were to own a dictionary, I would know how to spell"
"Tomorrow, I will the be owner of a new dictionary, and will be very happy"

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It's hard to put my finger on why, but If I were to own a dictionary... bothers me a bit, whereas tchrist's If I were to eat like that... seems fine. I can only make the first one work for me by imagining it as an irritated or jocular response to "Look it up in the dictionary!" after asking for a spelling, probably with exaggerated stress on were. The second one seems fine without any particular enunciation (or context, beyond the fact of someone "eating like that" in order to be referenced at all). – FumbleFingers Apr 4 '11 at 2:32
That's probably because it is more common to phrase it as If I owned a dictionary .... I probably should have chosen a better example there. Maybe If I were a bird, I could fly? – Loquacity Apr 5 '11 at 5:40
Well, it probably is more common to say If I owned... and If I ate.... The thing I'm hazy about is - why does If I were to own... make me feel a bit uneasy, whereas If I were to eat... seems perfectly natural? Is there really something going on there, or is it just me? – FumbleFingers Apr 5 '11 at 13:22
It's quite common for incorrect spelling and grammar to sound comfortable, or correct spelling and grammer to sound uncomfortable, simply because of common usage. That, after all, is how language changes over time. People start to use it in different ways, until eventually that becomes the accepted way to say (and write) it. Written language will always trail behind spoken language. – Loquacity Apr 7 '11 at 0:38
If so, perhaps the thing you’re hearing that you don’t like is the use of if I were to with stative verbs. – Jason Orendorff Apr 14 '11 at 9:00

The type of construction referred to as the "future subjunctive" belongs to the more general type of construction with modal meaning

[be] + (infinitival verb phrase)

which is used to indicate a future action that is thought to be iminent and probable, and is used especially to express obligation, e.g.,

You are to leave at once.

Let's call it the prospective construction. When the verb [be] appears in its preterite form, there are two main interpretations. First is to indicate a reference time in the past, as in

Thomas was to leave on the 3:30 train.

Which means that at some time in the past, it was thought probable that Thomas would leave on the 3:30 train (regardless of what may have eventually happened). The preterite form, however, is not restricted to indicating past time. Instead, preterite forms may take on a modal meaning, used to refer to contemplated or counterfactual actions, e.g.,

If Thomas was to leave on the 3:30 train tomorrow, I would regret missing the chance to have dinner with him.

The verb [be] is unique in English because it has an alternate form (sometimes called the irrealis) with similar function as the modal preterite. The following sentence has similar meaning with the previous one:

If Thomas were to leave on the 3:30 train tomorrow, I would regret missing the chance to have dinner with him.

In the case where the irrealis form of [be] is used in the prospective construction, you refer to a prospective meaning coupled with a counterfactual meaning. Counterfactual meanings often involve future actions, but not always, so I think it would be more appropriate to call this construction proximate irrealis, or something along those lines.

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But consider these examples:

  1. If I go to the concert, I will enjoy it.
  2. If I go to the concert, I might enjoy it.
  3. If I go to the concert, I would enjoy it.
  4. If I went ["were to go"] to the concert, I will enjoy it.
  5. If I went ["were to go"] to the concert, I might enjoy it.
  6. If I went ["were to go"] to the concert, I would enjoy it.

1, 2, 5 and 6 are corrent constructions; 3 and 4 are incorrect. I would describe 1 and 2 as in the indicative, 5 and 6 as future subjunctives. 2 expresses conditionality and uncertainty, and overlaps in meaning with 5, but to my mind, in 5 uncertainty is expressed in the conditional clause in a way it is not in 2. And at the least, the correctness of the use of the form "went" in what is clearly a statement about the future is best justified by recognizing it as a different form, even though the forms are homonyms.

Maybe I'm over-thinking this, but I believe the future subjunctive in English still has a (barely) discernible function.

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There is no future subjunctive, not now and not ever. There is past subjunctive, and present subjunctive, and that is it. You can follow the forms and uses back all the way to Old English: we have never ever had a future subjunctive. – tchrist Dec 8 '12 at 2:06
@tchrist: I agree with you, but Alexander Gil didn't. In his Logonomia Anglica of 1616, (one of the first grammars of English), he solemnly lists the paradigm of the "future subjunctive", which goes "that I may be hereafter"; "that thou mayst be hereafter" etc,. – Colin Fine Mar 31 '14 at 23:39

protected by tchrist Mar 31 '14 at 22:48

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