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In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (page 156), the book gives these examples for WERE-SUBJUNCTIVE (for showing the structural differences between indicative vs subjunctive constructions):

  • If I/he/she was leaving, you would have heard about it. [indicative]
  • If I/he/she were leaving, you would have heard about it. [subjunctive]

Later the book describes the were-subjunctive as:

The were-subjunctive (or past subjunctive) is hypothetical or unreal in meaning.

As I said, I know the structural properties of subjunctive constructions but I wonder what a native speaker of English language grasps/understands when hearing/reading those above mentioned examples (in terms of meaning)

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    There's no difference in meaning. The difference between irrealis "were" (your past subjunctive) and "was" is one of style level: "were" is somewhat more formal than "was", and many speakers would always use preterite "was". Note that leaving aside the modal auxiliaries, irrealis "were" is just about the only remaining mood form in Present-day English.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 15:27
  • So they only differ in formality then.
    – user147384
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 15:39
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    The subjunctive isn't really common enough in speech/everyday usage for people to infer much from it. The only difference in meaning it could convey would be the probability of the person leaving, but I don't think you can draw an unambiguous conclusion which is more probable, at least without factoring in the context.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 15:45
  • Yes: I also believe that "were" is preferred by older speakers.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 15:51
  • I think I can remember being told that was was ungrammatical in an irrealis situation (not in those words, of course; this was in the 1940s), but it never sounded that way to me. The only difference I can see is that with were, the speaker may be indicating a stronger belief in the proposition that she's not leaving than they would be with was. That's the way I'd use it, anyway; but that's probly just me. Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 16:55

2 Answers 2

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I think I can remember being told that was was ungrammatical in an irrealis situation (not in those words, of course; this was in the 1940s), but it never sounded that way to me. The only difference I can see is that with were, the speaker may be indicating a stronger belief in the proposition that she's not leaving than they would be with was. That's the way I'd use it, anyway; but that's probly just me. – John Lawler

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I cannot pose this as an answer because it reads too much like opinion. I agree with all comments so far. As an older and over-educated native speaker I prefer the subjunctive were, corresponding clearly to hypothetical circumstances, rather than the indicative was, which - if taken out of context - loses its hypothetical tone. But, as a native speaker, I am accustomed to both and would not correct anyone for was. – Anton

There's no difference in meaning. The difference between irrealis "were" (your past subjunctive) and "was" is one of style level: "were" is somewhat more formal than "was", and many speakers would always use preterite "was". Note that leaving aside the modal auxiliaries, irrealis "were" is just about the only remaining mood form in Present-day English. – BillJ

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A native speaker should understand:

If I/he/she was leaving [and I don't know if she is or not; she could do either], you would have heard about it. [indicative]

If I/he/she were leaving [but she is not], you would have heard about it. [subjunctive]

I suspect that a proportion of reasonably educated native speakers would instinctively choose the verb form that conveyed their meaning and, given context, would understand the difference.

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