To convey contrary-to-fact or unreal situations, I want to change the following indicative sentences to the subjunctive. Am I doing this correctly?

I held the phone as if I was holding a bomb that could explode anytime.
I held the phone as if I were holding a bomb that could explode anytime.

As I walked through the battlefield, it felt as if I was walking through quicksand.
As I walked through the battlefield, it felt as if I were walking through quicksand.

  • 1
    In informal English both are accepted. In formal English only "were" is acceptable. Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 16:26
  • 1
    I'd avoid the term 'indicative'. With one 'odd' exception, mood in English is marked by the modal auxiliary verbs, "can", "may", "must" etc. The one 'odd' exception is the "were" such as in your examples, which is an isolated 'irrealis' mood form. The subjunctive is a kind of clause construction headed by a plain form verb, e.g. "It is vital I be kept informed".
    – BillJ
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 17:08
  • You can drop by anytime, but a bomb might explode at any moment.
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 17:21
  • @BillJ we can contrast between a semantic sense and a syntactic sense. Semantically an indicative verb might be used in conjunction with a modal verb. Syntactically, there is a limited subjunctive mood.
    – eques
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 20:56
  • "Indicative" is a verbal category, i.e. syntactic. You could call many of the ordinary non-subjunctives "indicative" if you liked, but it does no work and hence the term is not needed
    – BillJ
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 7:06

1 Answer 1


Your examples are correct, although the subjunctive or irrealis were form is optional. As BillJ has suggested, it is arguably a bit pointless or misleading to think of the isolated survival of the "were" form as constituting a full-fledged subjunctive mood. This would put the other 99% of verb forms into a no-man's-land where no one can say whether they are indicative or subjunctive - particularly because virtually none of the uses of irrealis "were" are mandatory (the main exception being in inverted subordinate clauses: "Were I in New Zealand, I would visit you").

While "was" and "were" are both used to express unreality, "was" is considered less formal, "were" preferable in formal contexts.

A minor point of interest regarding these specific sentences is that usually an unreal past-tense form refers to non-past time (whereas the past perfect is used for unreal reference to past time), but in your examples, the unreal pasts refer to past time. This is noted as an oddity of "as if" sentences by Jesperson (who suggests that for this reason the "was" form is preferable where the verb refers to past time) and Huddleston & Pullum (who say that the past perfect is usually an alternative in such sentences but that either the simple past or the irrealis is much more common). (To complicate matters, some speakers use "as if" plus irrealis even when referring to a real past rather than an unreal one. This is arguably a hypercorrection, and here the past perfect doesn't normally work.)

References: Huddleston & Pullum, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp1151-3. Jespersen, O., Essentials of English Grammar (Allan and Unwin, 1933; Routledge, 1994), 24.2(7), p257.

  • Do you have an example of using "as if" + irrealis with a real past event? It's not entirely clear what that would mean
    – eques
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 20:58
  • H&P's example is "As the trooper left the room, the gambler turned to the army girl with an odd expression, as though he were remembering painful things" . (Admittedly that's "as though", but "as if" could be used too.) H&P's comment is that the example "doesn't imply that he wasn't remembering painful things: on the contrary, it suggests that he was or appeared to be" - making it at least arguably a hypercorrection.
    – rjpond
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 21:01
  • so in that case, is H&P suggesting it should be the realis/indicative "was"?
    – eques
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 21:03
  • Yes, essentially. They don't quite go that far (they're descriptivists and this use of "were" is probably quite common) - but they say that "were" here has the "flavour of hypercorrection" and they also say that "was" in such sentences wouldn't traditionally have been stigmatised. Some speakers, anxious not to be accused of neglecting the "were" form, now feel "was" to be stigmatised even in instances where it is traditionally considered correct - resulting in hypercorrection.
    – rjpond
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 21:07
  • strange. It seems like "were" should be correct because there is uncertainty (irrealis). It isn't established whether the gambler is remembering painful things or not.
    – eques
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 21:08

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