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I understand the usage of the past subjunctive but I'm confused whether I should use it in these kind of cases, because it sounds so stilted when I say it:

'If I [had/were to have] money, I'd go to the shops'

'If we really [wanted/were to want] to, we could go'

As far as I know we should use the second option in both these cases because it is a past subjunctive+conditional clause, but they just sound wrong. I feel this is similar to:

If we [fell/were to fall] down the hill, we'd have a hard time getting back up'

In this case it feels like the 2nd one is right, and doesn't sounds stilted at all. Are both options acceptable?

  • Hmm. I don't know why you think the subjunctive should be used in the first two. They seem like simple if/then sentences. The third example is a correct use of the subjunctive. Plenty of people would not use the subjunctive, though, in informal speech. – anongoodnurse Jul 2 '16 at 20:58
  • @medica what is the difference between the first set of examples, and the second one then? They seem similar to me – Andrew Wang Jul 2 '16 at 21:00
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Insofar as Modern English has a past subjunctive (it differs from the past in precisely one word in the entire language: "were" vs. "was"), both "had" and "were to have" are subjunctive, and both are appropriate to a counterfactual conditional. The difference is that "were to have" is more tentative than "had" - not necessarily more unlikely: it's about how the speaker is expressing the condition, rather than any objective difference in the condition.

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First, "were" is not subjunctive; there is no past subjunctive in English, despite what you may have read or been told. Subjunctive is not a mood; it is a type of clause construction headed by a plain form verb, as in It is vital that I be kept informed.

The "were", as instanced solely by 1/3 sg forms of the verb "be" and typically used in conditionals, is better called 'irrealis' mood. In your examples, the "were" in "were to have/want/fall" is irrealis mood, but "had/wanted/fell" are just modal preterites, not irrealis.

It all boils down to a choice of the formal irrealis "were" or the less-formal modal preterites.

  • -1: This "answer" dogmatically repeats the totally useless assertion that "were" is not subjunctive, and does not actually answer the question. In Shakespeare's English, if I were a woman was one of a broad range of uses of the subjunctive, "If this be false" to "command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell", which were undisputably one grammatical construction. Now, t only two uses of the subjunctive are left. They look completely different, and some grammarians decided that calling one of these the irrealis would be less confusing. They were wrong. – Peter Shor Jul 3 '16 at 13:36
  • Excuse me? I answered the question by clearly stating that 'formality' was the deciding factor in that the OP has a choice of formal "were" (whatever you may choose to call it) or the less-formal modal preterite alternatives. As regards the irrealis vs past subjunctive argument, here's a link to a useful post on Language Log by Stanford's Arnold Zwicky on the subject. If you just want a 'quick fix' just read GKP's bit in para 3: link. Read and learn! – BillJ Jul 3 '16 at 14:03
  • The question, as I understood it, is: why does "if we really were to want to go ..." and "if I were to have money" sound absolutely terrible and "if we were to fall down the hill ..." sound fine? This doesn't answer that. And most of your answer consists of a rant about how were to is not really a subjunctive, which is somewhat irrelevant. – Peter Shor Jul 3 '16 at 14:07
  • @BillJ You around? – Araucaria Jul 15 '16 at 16:34

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