Did the present, concessive subjunctive (“if it be the case”; “whether it be the case”) ever have a place in past-tense sentences?

To my understanding, the subjunctive “were” and the conditionals in which “were” appears refer most often to present or to undefined time and are more applicable to present or future possibility than to past facts. But I’ve noticed in some older writers the subjunctive is inserted into indirect questions (“asked him if he were ...”) as if the present subjunctive mood were back-shifted to chime with the past tense narrative. Isn’t this a (learned) mistake? And does the present subjunctive really fit into past actuality?

Thank you!

  • 1
    Most people don't notice the difference, and some think were is more formal than was, or that was is incorrect while were is correct, or that the Moon is made of green cheese. – John Lawler Aug 1 '20 at 22:49
  • @JohnLawler, would you say it probably doesn’t matter? – David Marlowe Aug 2 '20 at 0:02
  • I wouldn't lose any sleep worrying about it. – John Lawler Aug 2 '20 at 2:13

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