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The sentence is not referring to any time past, present of future. It's just referring to an imaginary condition which has never existed and seemingly will never exist. Still, the sentence and other sentences of this type are said and spoken. So what can we say about their nature? Which tense are they, what type are they? Their clauses, etc.

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You correctly tagged this with subjunctive mood. Your question may be related to english.stackexchange.com/questions/660/…. –  rajah9 Dec 26 '12 at 20:09
    
Thanks for all of yours responses. One thing has been clear that this sentence is in a state which is almost obsolete. Now again I would like to know that how will we pronounce the same sentence in modern day English? I mean how will we convey the same meaning in present day English? –  Aleena Dec 27 '12 at 19:24
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It isn't obsolete at all. It is present-day English, but some native speakers will say If I was a bird, I'd be able to fly. –  Barrie England Dec 27 '12 at 19:44
    
I agree with @BarrieEngland; while subjunctive mood is falling out of favor, I can hear it saying in a Monty Python voice, "I'm not dead yet." In versions earlier than MS Word 2007, the software would give you a squiggly green line on the verb (i.e., grammar correction) for "If I were" and suggest "If I was." Perversely, in MS Word 2010, it lets the subjunctive pass without a peep. –  rajah9 Dec 27 '12 at 20:45
    
Thanks Barrie and Rajah.. but then if it is not obsolete. their must be a definite tense :( representing it. its main clause is, "If I were a bird" does not that suggest that it belongs to past indefinite? –  Aleena Dec 28 '12 at 17:53

3 Answers 3

Were is the plural past tense form of be, used here in a counterfactual conditional idiom construction that is given various names, including "subjunctive", which often apply to other European languages, though not to English.

In fact, however, tense is not what you need to know here. Tense only has to do with time -- past and present only in English -- and the important thing about this construction is not when it occurs, but whether it occurs at all. And it doesn't; nothing happens. That's what counterfactual means.

So, in essence, there is no tense involved. Especially since the second clause uses the modal auxiliary could. Modals are defective verbs and are not inflected; therefore they can be said either to be always in the present tense, or to have no tense at all, depending on how you define "tense"; take your pick.

It's true that there are certain uses of modals that retain some of their original preterite morphology, e.g, present can and preterite could in

  • When I was 25, I could do 100 pullups; now I can only do 99.

But there's no "past" at all in

  • I could do that right now.
  • Would you like to dance?
  • You must come visit me soon.

which are formed from historically preterite modals (could, might, would, should, must) instead of historically present ones (can, may, will, shall).

They're all idiomatic now. It's a mistake to expect any consistent semantic or grammatical regularity from modals, especially if there are negatives lurking about.

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If I were is in the past subjunctive. It is used for hypotheses.

Then I could, like then I would be able to, is construed to be in the conditional. However, morphologically, could is the past tense of the modal can.

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Or, if you, prefer, as I and Messrs Huddleston and Pullum do, it is irrealis were. –  Barrie England Dec 26 '12 at 19:53
    
@BarrieEngland I’ve never understood this desire to reanalyse and rebrand such things all the way back to OE (and probably beyond) using different terms than have traditionally been applied to them. There is probably an argument to be made there, but if so, I doubt whether it would fit within these comments. –  tchrist Dec 26 '12 at 20:35

The verbs in this sentence are vestiges of a subjunctive used in English to indicate conditions contrary to fact. We indicate this usage by using the plural form, where it exists, of the past tense.

Were is the plural past tense of to be. Could is the past tense of can (no singular/plural distinction exists).

Example: I have gone to the store to buy milk. If I had gone to the store to buy milk...

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Plural past tense is an unsatisfactory description of were. You were can be singular. –  Barrie England Dec 26 '12 at 19:56
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Understood. Looking for an easy guide for someone trying to figure out how to make the construction. Really, it's any non-first person formation, but to say, "Use the past plural" yields the correct result. –  Ryan Dec 26 '12 at 19:58

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