Let's take this passage from "For whom the bell tolls" as an example:

They make love and go to sleep, but in the middle of the night Jordan wakes up in a panic and clutches Maria close to him. He feels as if she were all he has of life, and even that will soon be taken away from him.

Here the author narrates in the present tense. Hence as if she were is justifiable. But if the narration had been in the past tense, must the author have changed as if she were to as if she had been? ("He felt as if she had been all he has of life...")

I expect you say that it is a book, so the author must. But in a colloquial speech is it common not to make this shift?

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    I think he would have used "she had been" if the story had been told in past tenses. Apr 1, 2014 at 13:39
  • @DamkerngT. That is not how the subjunctive mood works though in English. Past subjunctive should be "as if she were". Apr 1, 2014 at 13:41
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    @TimSeguine I think not. "As if she were" is a past form employed as an irrealis with present reference. Apr 1, 2014 at 13:44
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    @TimSeguine English 'subjunctive' is controversial, and the terminology confusing. The infinitive is used in ModE as what traditional grammar calls a 'present subjunctive' almost exclusively in mandatives with future reference: "We demand that he resign." What traditional grammar calls the 'past subjunctive' is used with present reference: "If I were you I would resign." In circumstances where a past irrealis is called for we use what looks like a perfect but is actually a perfect construction employed as a past marker: "If I had been you I would have resigned". Apr 1, 2014 at 14:07
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    Incidentally: this is not a quotation from For Whom the Bell Tolls; it is from a plot summary. So let's not blame Hemingway for this! Apr 1, 2014 at 14:47

2 Answers 2


Reading the sentence aloud (always helps) led me to conclusion that you wouldn't change the phrase for the past tense.

'As if she were is an example of the imperfect subjunctive; she isn't all there is to his life, but the context considers the hypothetical possibility of it, so we stick that tense in there.

Regardless of which tense you're writing in, the imperfect subjunctive is still the imperfect subjunctive. The perfect tense doesn't work as a replacement in this case.


Apart from the topic subjunctive discussed here, I'll try to make out some other point as well. It's about were and had been.

I think, in most of the cases, had been implies to someone/thing that was in the past and is not anymore whereas were refers to someone/thing at that specific point of time but not necessarily mean that it got changed.

Here, He feels as if she were all he has of life keeps up the fact that the girl is everything for him. As you said, changing the tense (past), in my opinion, should still say the same but with a little change (contrary to what you wrote).

He felt as if she were all he had of life.

Maybe, comments on this answer can help me improve this further.

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