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"Flesh," said the boy, and he pronounced the word with slow relish, as though he were tasting it.

I was analyzing this sentence with my high school class, and one student pointed out that "he were" should be "he was." I didn't know how to respond to the student, but I have since discovered that the subjunctive mood is being used.

Are there any ideas at to why the author would be using subjunctive mood in this case?

  • Possible duplicate of Behave as if it was or it were. The expression "as though" and the counterfactual sense of the clause (you cannot literally taste a word, well not unless you have synesthesia I guess) licence the use of the past "subjunctive" or "irrealis" were. – sumelic Nov 6 '17 at 7:49
  • It's not the subjunctive (despite what you may have read). This "were" is best called 'irrealis' mood, an untidy relic from an earlier system that is restricted to 1/3 singular "be". It is a highly formal, and many speakers usually, if not always, use preterite "was" instead. Subjunctive is a clause type headed by a plain form verb, e.g. "It is vital that I be kept informed". – BillJ Nov 6 '17 at 7:50
  • 'as though tasting it' sounds better to me. I don't see why the extra pronoun and verb are needed. – Nigel J Nov 6 '17 at 12:02
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This is simple if one remembers that the subjunctive is used when something is CONTRARY TO FACT. One can't really taste words, so it is contrary to fact. To elucidate, please consider these two sentences: If John WAS there it would have been a good party and If John WERE there it would have been a good party are both correct but imply totally different things. The second uses the subjunctive and implies that John was not really at the party (contrary to fact).

  • I don't understand the grammar of your example "If John WAS there it would have been a good party". If "was" is being used as a non-counterfactual past-tense form in this sentence, I would not expect the following clause to use "would have been", but some other construction like "must have been". – sumelic Nov 6 '17 at 14:38
  • @sumelic if the speaker is unsure whether John was at the party he can say: If John was there it would have been a good party. Here was is being used in a 'non-counterfactual past-tense form' but it doesn't express irrealis but the speaker's ignorance of a fact (he doesn't know if John was there or not). Still he is allowed to make a conditional sentence even though he doesn't know if John was there. – AmE speaker Nov 6 '17 at 15:43
  • @sumelic to state it another way, using the regular past tense (was) rather than the irrealis were or its informal/colloquial equivalent (irrealis was) allows for the possibility of the protasis to be true, even if the speaker doesn't think so. The speaker isn't expressing an irrealis. I highly doubt John was there, but if John was there (I'm not absolutely saying he wasn't, but I highly doubt it), then it would have been a great party (which is my logical deduction). – AmE speaker Nov 7 '17 at 12:38

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