Many people would say the correct form is "If I were rich ...".

In modern colloquial English though most younger people would say "If I was rich ...".

Prescriptivists might say the latter is "the subjunctive mood" and the former is "just plain wrong".

Both forms "were" and "was" are identical to English past tense forms. There are no distinct subjunctive forms I am aware of in Modern English though I do not know if Old English had them.

When learning foreign languages such as Spanish or German we are often told "English doesn't have the subjunctive". Such languages usually do have distinct forms for the subjunctive.

So my question is what terms are used in English linguistics to cover each case? Is it just "subjunctive" or are there also now terms such as "colloquial subjunctive", "informal subjunctive", "formal subjunctive"? Or are there people who insist that English is unlike Spanish and German and name these constructions something distinct from "subjunctive"? Also how do the terms "counterfactual" and "irrealis" fit in?


I didn't find this related question when I was writing mine: Why have the subjunctive and indicative converged in Modern English?


After much Googling I've noticed the phrase "marked subjunctive" seems to have some currency but I haven't yet seen it specifically defined to mean the use of "were" rather than "was" so the hunt continues but it's the closest so far.

  • Does the question you point to in your update answer your question? If so, this question will probably be closed; it it doesn't give you everything you want, can you clarify what extra information you need?
    – psmears
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 7:49
  • No it doesn't answer my question. Mine is a question mainly of terminology regarding concepts blurring around subjunctive/counterfactual/irrealis whereas the other question is about the changes the subjunctive has undergone in English. But there is some very interesting overlap. Commented May 10, 2011 at 7:52

3 Answers 3


Purely in terms of the terminology, then a distinction sometimes made is that:

  • inflectional subjunctive is the type found in Old English, German, modern Romance languages etc, in which verbal inflection distinguishes subjunctive from indicative;
  • periphrastic subjunctive is the type found (if you adopt this analysis) in modern English, in which subjunctive is distinguished from indicative by way of modal auxiliaries/other verbal constructions.

There's really no consensually agreed upon "wrong" or "right" answer to the question of whether English actually "has a subjunctive". If you adopt the analysis that "subjunctive" is the grammaticalisation of non-assertive force with a verbal paradigm-- which seems to be a close approximation to what the phenomenon is in Romance languages-- then it's fairly clear that English doesn't have such a phenomenon. (Saying that English has a past subjunctive on the basis of the form "if it were" is a bit like saying that English is a verb-final language on the basis of a phrase such as "Language does not a society make": it's proposing a paradigm on the basis of a rare exception.)

If you extend the definition to cover cases such as English "It is sad that he should leave", "David commanded that she leave" etc, then there are various issues to be considered which are typically glossed over in language learning textbooks:

  • care must be taken to recognise where the similarities and differences actually lie between these phenomena and the inflectional subjunctives of French etc;
  • it is worth thinking about what the motivation is for proposing "subjunctive" as a 'special case' of modal verb usage.
  • Thanks Neil. I hadn't realized that I was only paying attention to such a small irregular part of what the subjunctive mood is in English. And you found terminology to boot! (-: Commented May 10, 2011 at 14:44

I believe some modernists call it simply the past form, because, for all verbs but to be, it is identical in form to the simple past, which expresses a reference to the past. I'd be the last person to recommend this term, but here it is.

Most people still seem to stick to the term past subjunctive. (I'm also under the impression that if I were is still de rigueur in most educated circles, not was, though there is bound to be considerable variation.)

  • I guess I'm still looking if there might be differing terminology for the usage or construction than for the verb form or inflection. And also descriptive linguists might have some terminology beyond what people teaching English use. Commented May 10, 2011 at 12:35
  • @hippietrail: Traditionalists would call this usage conditional, modernists appear to call the verb in the main clause conditional mood. I think they just call the if verb a past verb. Not sure I've ever heard them label it in a more functional way, but they might. Commented May 10, 2011 at 13:05

Michael D.C. Drout in his book History of the English Language says the following about subjunctive mood:

Modern English has mostly lost the subjunctive form and replaced it with modal auxiliaries like could and would.

It’s my understanding that Old English made use of the subjunctive mood and that's why we still use “If I were you” in Modern English even though it appears incorrect. It’s a relic from our Anglo-Saxon roots.

Michael Drout has written a series of audio books on the English language (published by Modern Scholar). Since his background is in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, he is a good resource for questions like these.

  • "[...] even though it appears incorrect." I disagree. When I hear someone say "If I was you," it gives me the same impression of them as if they were to say "it's only a hour" or "I should have went." That is, it conveys a lack of sophistication and suggests a lack of any formal education on English. There are still plenty of instances of subjunctive forms. It may be true that "to be" has the distinction of having the most obvious subjunctive differences, but that's not the extent of the subjunctive mood in English. "I suggest the OP do some reading on the subjunctive mood."
    – bubbleking
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 14:10

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