In this sentence: "It might be relaxing if you read a book" - why is the verb 'read' in past tense? Why isn't the verb 'read' in past tense with this example: "Why not read a book?"

I'm just trying to figure out when you would use past tense when making suggestions (why not read a book, what if you read a book to help you relax, etc.)


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    It's an unfortunate example, sine the written form of to read looks the same in past and present tense (it's just that past tense rhymes with red, and present tense with reed). At least with something like listen[ed] to music we'd be able to see the difference as text. Whatever - for most contexts either tense is fine. – FumbleFingers May 23 '15 at 20:47
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    @FumbleFingers - Actually, that sentence can be red either way. I'm no expert, but it appears to be in the subjunctive mood. But you may reed it differently if you wish. – Hot Licks May 23 '15 at 20:56
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    @Hot Licks: I'm no expert either, but I was already pretty sure the red version here is subjunctive. And looking at my link (yours was too long for me at the moment! :) I suppose I have to accept the reed version as subjunctive too. Mostly though, I stick to there are only two tenses - present, and not-present, in which context obviously a hypothetical if clause isn't here/now/present. I guess the solution to that riddle is that subjunctive is a mood, not a tense (so maybe it depends on how you feel! :) – FumbleFingers May 24 '15 at 1:43
  • @FumbleFingers - All I know is that thinking about that stuff too much makes me cranky. – Hot Licks May 24 '15 at 1:45

It's the English version of the subjunctive mood. In this case, it's the past subjunctive, which expresses a counterfactual conditional situation—one that you wish were true but isn't.

In a lot of other languages, it would be much more apparent that you were writing in a different mood, because the verb would be conjugated differently. But that's not really how English rolls.

So the sentence "Why not read a book?" isn't in the past tense because it's not counterfactual; it doesn't refer to any hypothetical, non-existent version of reality.

(References from Wikipedia.)

(If you're interested, I found this earlier question on EL&U, which has some interesting information in the answers on the subject of why the subjunctive is so hard to notice in English.)

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    I can't see the relevance of "Why not read a book?" isn't in the past tense. By the same token, "I might read a book" isn't in the past tense. The entire issue is unnecessarily confused by OP choosing to use an irregular verb in which past, present, and subjunctive all have the same written form, but the bottom line is "It might help if you read a book" is equally valid with the "present" tense reed pronunciation. And I'm pretty sure both versions are subjunctive mood, representing hypothetical situations. They're just "the one and only other" tense (not present). – FumbleFingers May 24 '15 at 2:27
  • @FumbleFingers The counterfactual conditional is formed with the past subjunctive. The present version, "It might help if you read a book," is not the subjunctive, although there is such a thing as present subjunctive. Check out the articles I linked. – Jason Melançon May 24 '15 at 2:57
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    A better example might be It might be relaxing if you took a walk, There you can see that we really do use the past tense. – Barmar May 24 '15 at 11:00

In your sentence "It might be relaxing, if you read the book.", the verb "read" is in present tense not in past tense, and if we want to say this in past tense we would say- "It might be relaxing, if you would read the book." It could be said in another way as- It might be relaxing, if you would have read the book. See uses of would in dictionary, you will be more clear about it.

  • The structure if you would read is wrong. Either you use I wish/If only + would + base form when you want the behaviour of someone or something to change. – Alejandro Nov 20 '15 at 15:11

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