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Given the 2 examples below:

  1. I wish you were here now

  2. If he were in the situation that you've been 2 weeks ago, we wouldn't have bothered about it now

The word 'were' is used as a subjunctive and my question is: To me, because of the signaling words now and 2 weeks ago, the first example is a thinking and a usage of the word 'were' in the present, though a hypothetical situation and the second example shows 'were' for a past thinking and again a hypothetical situation. Is it so? I also found the article on Wikipedia (English subjunctive - were) but I didn't find the section entitled 'Use of the past subjunctive' to be clarifying. Despite having the name of PAST SUBJUNCTIVE , the first example to me is very present. So to summarize and ask it in a more comprised way:

What are the tenses of the were subjunctive? Does a native speaker think on the tense of this verb 'were' when used as a subjunctive?

Thank you

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  • 1
    Historically were is " past subjunctive" (which for every other verb in the language is identical with the simple past). This does not mean that it has any hint of past meaning at all: it is simply a name given to this form, which is used for counter-factuals.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 22, 2020 at 18:10
  • This is known as condition contrary fact.
    – Lambie
    Nov 19, 2021 at 16:25

4 Answers 4

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Both of your example sentences are using were to refer to a present (but nonfactual) condition.

I wish you were here now.

This means that you aren't actually here now.

The second sentence is the same, but I need to rephrase it slightly for it to be grammatical (and, perhaps, to make it understandably in the present):

If he were in the same situation now that you had been 2 weeks ago, we wouldn't be bothered about it.

You will note that I added a word, move now closer to the start of the sentence, and changed a couple of tenses.

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I wish you were here now.

But you are not. That sentence is said in a present time about what one wishes in the present.

1) If he had been in the situation you were in 2 weeks ago, we we wouldn't have bothered about it now.

The second sentence is about one thing preceding another in the past: you were in a situation two weeks ago, and if he had been in it, x would have happened. had been is present perfect and precedes the situation you were in.

or
2) If he were in the situation you were in 2 weeks ago, etc.

Again, "if he were" would be said at a present time. It is not past tense. It is like the first example.

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The subjunctive "were" may be past tense but does not refer to past time. It is used to refer to an unreal present ("If I were you, I would do something about it") or unreal future ("If I were able to be there tomorrow, I would be").

Tense and time should not be confused. Tense is an inflectional category. "I fly to Paris on Monday" is present tense but refers to future time. In "If I had the money, I would give it to you", "had" is past tense (and would traditionally have been called "past subjunctive") but refers to an unreal present.

So, what neither of the existing answers quite says, but Colin Fine makes clear in the comments, is that although "historically were is "past subjunctive" (which for every other verb in the language is identical with the simple past)", "this does not mean that it has any hint of past meaning at all: it is simply a name given to this form, which is used for counter-factuals".

So in the traditional term "past subjunctive", the term "past" refers to form, not time. But the same is true when we talk about the past tense generally, the present tense, etc.

In the traditional view, which he alludes to, the past indicative and past subjunctive are identical for every verb except "be" (which has the "was"/"were" distinction): in other words, the two moods show an extremely high level of syncretism or overlap.

However, in informal English, people often say "if I was" where "if I were" is formally prescribed. So one of the disadvantages of the traditional view is that every time you see "if I had", "if I said", "if I went", you actually have no idea whether it's a subjunctive or an indicative being used in place of a subjunctive. Hence it makes more sense, instead of seeing the past subjunctive as a complete mood, to see the special use of "were" as an isolated "irrealis" mood-form specific to the verb "to be". Once seen as an isolated form, the question of tense becomes even less relevant.

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In this context, were is the present subjunctive. It’s used to refer to a counterfactual or hypothetical situation.

A past subjective, referring to a hypothetical or counterfactual situation in the past, would say, had been.

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