Is there really such a thing as a “past subjunctive” in English?

I actually learned the term “past subjunctive” from my Spanish class. From what I already know, the subjunctive is used with subjunction — that is, like with until and while clauses.

So for example, in this sentence:

I was eating chips while there was nobody around.

Is that “while there was” actually supposed to be “while there is” instead?

  • 1
    In Spanish there is. In fact, there are several versions of the past subjunctive. In English there isn't, as you suspected. Though there are those who feel they cannot go on living if English doesn't have a subjunctive, and you don't want to push them too hard. What English does have is a number of odd complement types, with odd tense markers, all determined by what verb they come after. This is normal for complement clauses, and there's no cause for giving it a special name and performing human sacrifice to appease the grammar gods. – John Lawler Oct 8 '14 at 0:45
  • Any answer to the question in last paragraph ?? – most venerable sir Oct 8 '14 at 0:46
  • The question is whether there is a past subjunctive. There isn't. – John Lawler Oct 8 '14 at 0:47
  • No, it is about is versus was. – most venerable sir Oct 8 '14 at 0:48
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    Either one can be used here. This has nothing to do with subjunctive, by the way. And there's no reason to change the sentence to I was eating chips while there's nobody around. It's grammatical, and it means the same thing, but it's not subjunctive. – John Lawler Oct 8 '14 at 0:57

The only time past subjunctive is currently used in English is in "if" clauses and similar constructions:

If I were in charge, I would change the rules.

And in wishes:

I wish I were in love again.

Many people use the past indicative form of the verb in these constructions:

If I was in charge, I would change the rules.

Note that the past subjunctive is identical in form to the past indicative except for the verb to be, so one could argue that "had" is subjunctive in

If I had a hammer, I would hammer in the morning.

However, this usually isn't analyzed in this manner.

Some grammarians thought that using the name subjunctive for the "if x were ..." construction was confusing, since it doesn't at all like the current uses of the present subjunctive in English, so they decided to start calling it the irrealis mood instead. This has led to much more confusion, as now some people call this construction the "past subjunctive" while others claim that English has no past subjunctive.

Historically, the construction "if x were ..." is a remnant of a much wider use of both the past and present subjunctive in English, and the uses were more similar to those in German and Spanish then the remaining ones are today. For example, Shakespeare used the present subjunctive in many before clauses in ways similar to the way the subjunctive is used in French and Spanish. This usage is now obsolete.

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    Your “only in if clauses” constraint for where the “hypothetical-were” form can occur in current English is a bit strict. It can also show up in situations like “unless it were” (arguably a type of if-cause, although you can’t always swap in unless for if not), “provided/assuming (that) it were”, “I wish it were” (thanks, Oscar-Mayer song :), etc. As you note, it was once used more extensively than this, and so there are a few other rare possibilities of that nature, especially in formal or literary language, but which would be unusual to hear in casual conversation. – tchrist Dec 1 '14 at 14:45

I think it's a simple matter of matching tenses:

"I was eating chips while there was nobody around."

"I am eating chips while there is nobody around."

Note that I changed "no body" to "nobody". I assumed you're not eating chips while there is a corpse ('body') present! ;-)

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