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I'm not sure whether to use the past tense or the conditional in this construction below.

I found the answers to the exam, but I didn't look at them because I would have felt that I was (or were?) cheating.

Is it 'were' because it's an unreal conditional? Or is it not an unreal conditional?

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    "Were" sounds perfectly idiomatic to a native speaker such as me. – WS2 Sep 3 '18 at 20:17
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    "Were" sounds wholly unidiomatic to a native speaker such as me. In the example you cited, use "was" and in any case, why not take the same Question somewhere such as English Language Learners? – Robbie Goodwin Sep 3 '18 at 23:44
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    As another native speaker, I agree with @WS2. Were sounds perfectly fine to me. It's not something that would normally be used in a sentence constructed in the past tense but the use of would have allows it. – Jason Bassford Sep 4 '18 at 0:03
  • WS2; Jason; that might have been true 100 and even 50 years ago but today, how could you justify "… I (would have) felt I were cheating"? Isn't even a conditional form such as "If I were cheating…" dubious, in modern usage? – Robbie Goodwin Sep 19 '18 at 0:30
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This is confusing because singular use of "were" is a part of the subjunctive mood which sees very little use in day-to-day English speech. As such, most people are unclear on the grammatical rules surrounding it.

(The verb conjugations for the subjunctive mood overlap enough with other moods that people tend to understand it more as a set of special-case exceptions that are followed "just because" rather than as a coherent grammatical entity.)

In a subjunctive sentence, you use the subjunctive forms (eg. "were") in the dependent clause, and the conditional forms (eg. would) in the independent clause.

"If I were to read them, I would have felt that I was cheating."

Without the comma, "I would have felt that I was cheating if I were to read them."

I'll try to demonstrate the separation between a fully conditional sentence and one using the subjunctive mood with an example:

Subjunctive: "If I were rich, I wouldn't be living here." (A hypothetical.)

Conditional: "If I was rich, I wouldn't be living here." (A statement about the past, based on present evidence.)

...or, comparing subjunctive and indicative:

Subjunctive: "Long live the king" or its more obvious form, "May the king live long".

Indicative: "Long lives the king" and its more obvious form "The king lives long".

  • Would whoever downvoted please explain so that I can learn from it? – ssokolow Sep 16 '18 at 8:21

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