I came up with a question while reading a poem by Duhamel:

"If I were the kind who made promises, I'd probably begin by saying..."

So, why made and not "makes"? Is it strictly necessary to use the subjunctive form in that part of the sentence?


There’s no subjunctive construction in your example. "Were" is irrealis mood, a very formal alternative to the modal preterite "was" (a tense form). It exhibits a high degree of modal remoteness, higher in fact than "was".

"Made" is a modal preterite, again used to denote modal remoteness, and replaceable by the non-modal present tense "makes"

| improve this answer | |
  • There are no modals here at all. – Lambie Feb 12 '16 at 20:39
  • @Lambie I didn't say there were. I said modal preterite, which is the special use of the preterite (past) form of a verb to indicate modality rather than tense. – BillJ Feb 12 '16 at 20:42
  • 2
    These forms were called the "subjunctive" fifty years ago, and still are quite often. Lots of people never received the memo about their renaming. – Peter Shor Feb 12 '16 at 21:24
  • 1
    @M-b It has to do with ‘modality’: the use here of the modal preterite "made" presents your promise-making as a somewhat more remote possibility than present tense “makes”. You can use “makes” if you wish - it would be perfectly grammatical - but it would very slightly weaken the overall modality, though the conditional “if” coupled with the highly modalised “were” (which has nothing to do with past time) would preserve the overall modal remoteness meaning. (Btw, I hope you found the link useful.) – BillJ Feb 15 '16 at 16:57
  • 1
    @M-b A subjunctive clause is quite different. Unlike a modal preterite clause, which uses the preterite, (past tense) verb form, the subjunctive construction uses the plain (infinitve) form of the verb, as in It is essential that I be kept informed; I insist that he meet her, and such like. Incidentally, despite what schoolboy grammar books and websites may tell you, the "were" in If I were you, is not past-subjunctive. The "were" in that example is called 'irrealis' mood, a formal alternant to modal preterite "was". – BillJ Feb 15 '16 at 17:23

Interesting discussion here. I've noticed what I'll call "irrealis preterite modality", following BillJ's contribution. I think I should be clear about what he calls "remoteness", this is actually two separate things, one is "unreality" stemming from the use of what is commonly known as the irrealis mood. The other is "hypotheticality" stemming from the use of the past preterite verb form, and phenomena we're calling "preterite modality".

"Preterite modality" used by everyone when differentiating the 1st and 2nd conditionals in English. To illustrate this, "If I become president then I will lower taxes" sounds like what a politician would say, "If I became president then I would lower taxes" sounds like something anyone might say, regardless of their political ambition. If the outcome is a realistic possibility we use present tense form verbs in the conditional, if the outcome is hypothetical we use past tense form verbs (aka preterite verb forms). In this case these are become/became and will/would. Bear in mind that will/would are what are known as "modal verbs" so don't behave quite normally, however, don't think that modality is only to do with those verbs we call "modal verbs", because it's not. Anyway the important thing to remember is that "Preterite modality" stresses hypotheticality.

The "irrealis" mood is used in English to stress "unreality", essentially to cast doubt on a claim. It's sometimes referred to as the subjunctive but most modern grammarians think that it's incorrect to class it as subjunctive. What's crazy about the irrealis mood is that it only exists in one verb in the entire language, and that verb is "were". What's even more crazy is that it's only possible to even be aware of whether its usage by a speaker is intentional in the 1st and 3rd person singular. The irrealis is marked by the use of the verb form "were" instead of the verb form "was". For example, "If I were there, I would do it" (conditional) and "I wish she were here" (wish, desire), and "He said he were working" (casting doubt on a claim). To make things even more crazy this irrealis form is pretty much optional in much of the English speaking world. Anyway, the important thing to take away here is that the irrealis mood stressed that something is unreal, that what we're talking about isn't true.

Now what you've got in the example is a straight 2nd conditional, and the antecedent of a 2nd conditional a place where it's completely correct to use the irrealis if you want to. What's unusual about "If I were the kind who made promises, I'd probably begin by saying..." is that you've got a relative clause coming under the scope of an "if-clause". This give us the opportunity to create what I'm calling a "irrealis preterite modality", occurring when two finite verbs are falling under the scope of the antecedent of the conditional.

"If I were the kind who made promises"

Now if he'd said "If I was the kind who made promises", you'd simply have two preterite modalities, but because he used "were", you've got two preterite modalities and an irrealis ("were" being both a preterite modality and irrealis). And this is what I'm calling "irrealis preterite modality".

What's even crazier is that with the first verb of the example the irrealis is pretty much optional (both was or were are fine), and that in the second verb the preterite modality is pretty much optional (both makes and made are fine).


If I were the kind who made promises If I was the kind who made promises If I were the kind who makes promises If I was the kind who makes promises

Are all completely comprehensible English sentences with very little difference in meaning.

However, I think that opting to use the irrealis, and opting to use the preterite modality, have very similar functions, which is stressing unreality and hypotheticality, which are obvious concepts that occur together very often. I will also add that using preterite modality in the 2nd verb in this case also sounds more "proper" to me, merely because of tense agreement.

To answer OP's questions. You can basically just use either was/were or make/makes in your example and the meaning is pretty much identical, as in modern speech all are viable. The were + made example just stresses the unreality/hypotheticality most emphatically, and matching the tenses stylistically seems more formal.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.