Why "past subjunctive" has this (confusing) name if it is used for hypothetical situations and wishes that take place in the present and the Past Perfect is the tense used in such contexts in the past?

Example 1:

  • If I were you, I would not do that.
  • If I had been you, I would not have done that.

Example 2:

  • I wish I were there.
  • I wish I had been there.

Wouldn't "Imaginary Present" or something similar describe better this verb tense? If so, why isn't it adopted by all grammar texts?

  • 2
    Yes, indeed. One influential modern grammar calls this "were" 'irrealis', not past subjunctive. Btw, it's not a tense but a mood form. – BillJ Sep 4 '19 at 15:13

Historically, in English ca. Shakespeare, there was a past subjunctive and a present subjunctive. They were used much more often than they are now, and there was a clear connection between their uses. And the two verb forms were indeed, at least loosely, associated with the past and the present.

Over time, English lost most of the usages of the subjunctive; we use the past subjunctive in conditional sentences, and the present subjunctive with some verbs associated with recommendations, demands, or orders. But many grammarians still use the old names.

Some grammarians tried changing the name of the past subjunctive to the irrealis, on the grounds that in today's English the past subjunctive and the present subjunctive are constructions that seem unrelated. This has caused a great deal of confusion, but if you don't like the name past subjunctive, feel free to use the term irrealis.

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  • I presume it's the past subjunctive because the auxiliary verb "were" is the past tense of "is". – Barmar Sep 4 '19 at 23:25

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