Wikipedia says about English subjunctive mood:

In Modern English, the subjunctive is realised as a finite but tenseless clause where the main verb occurs in the bare form. Since the bare form is also used in a variety of other constructions, the English subjunctive is reflected by a clause type rather than a distinct inflectional paradigm

Doesn't "the main verb occurs in the bare form" mean "be" ("eat", "have" etc.) rather than "were" (or any other conjugation of the infinitive)

So according to this Wikipedia article "if I were" is not conjugated according to the subjunctive mood, if I've understood it correctly.

Please can someone help me understand what grammatical "tense" (I am not sure of the correct terminology here either) that "if I were" belongs to.

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1 Answer 1


TLDR: The mood of were in “If I were you” is either irrealis or subjunctive (past tense), depending on which grammarians you listen to.

There is a battle over terminology currently going on among grammarians. Some grammarians refer to the verb in “If I were you” as the past subjunctive (See for example, this Grammar girl post), labeling it as past tense and subjunctive mood. Others refer to it as the irrealis mood (See for example the footnote here). Wikipedia for now seems to have decided to go with the irrealis label. For example, in the Wikipedia article on the English subjunctive, the terminology past subjunctive for irrealis seems to be classified as a “misconception”, rather than as a possibly superseded name, which would be more accurate.

There are advantages and disadvantages of this change in terminology. An advantage is that in contemporary English, the past subjunctive, or irrealis, has very little grammatical relation to the present subjunctive, also known as the mandative subjunctive.

A disadvantage is that, historically, both the mandative subjunctive and the irrealis are derived from a subjunctive mood that was used much more broadly; you can visualize these as being two small islands that are left of a much larger subjunctive landmass that has been inundated by the rising waters of the indicative.

Another disadvantage is that trying to change terminology inevitably ends up confusing people, even if you have good reasons for changing it. My personal opinion is that the change is too recent for people to be calling one or the other label “wrong”.

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    The fact is that Present-day English does not have a subjunctive mood. It was lost in earlier stages of the language. it's better to call it 'irrealis', a special mood form instanced solely by "were" with a 1st or second person sing. subject. The subjunctive is, then, not a mood but a type of clause headed by a plain form verb, as in "It is vital that I be kept informed". Btw, there's nothing 'past tense' about this "were". Whichever analysis is preferred, it's a mood form, not a tense form.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 7:48
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    Of course the irrealis mood is limited to "were” in Present-day English. To claim otherwise would be a ridiculous error. Clauses headed by verbs with a preterite tense expressing a modal meaning, such as the one you cite, are called 'modal preterite' clauses, and the verbs they contain are called 'modal preterites'. And, FYI, ‘imperative’ is a clause type, not a mood, whose verb is in the plain form, just as it is in subjunctive clauses. In Present-day English, mood is mostly marked by modal auxiliaries, the exception being the isolated irrealis mood form “were”.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 14:26
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    Pretty silly to call it a "mood". It's a construction, with specific modes and rules, like every other construction. It reminded people of the Latin subjunctive, and that was good enough, because up until recently, nobody minded confusing words with their meaning. Now that we try sporadically to separate them, it gets confusing to distinguish form from function. Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 15:43
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    @BillJ . Of course the irrealis mood is limited to "were” in Present-day English. To claim otherwise would be a ridiculous error. <--- I nearly always agree with you, but here I can't (this is my area of research!). The term irrealis supposedly indicates that something isn't true. However, this is not the actual case with so-called irrealis were. The term modal remoteness is basically identical to the term irrealis in this respect. There is no difference between the use of a modally remote preterite and the use of an irrealis were. Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 16:34
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    @BillJ The evidence to back this up is that 1) irrealis were can always be replaced by a preterite form of be, and 2), as will be clear from the previous comment, it is impossible to distinguish by either syntax, morphology or meaning the difference between an instance of a plural, modally remote preterite and an instance of irrealis were. Irrealis were seems morphologically to be past tense, and appears only in environments which grammatically require past tense verbs. Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 16:43

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