Rule: The past subjunctive has the same form as the Past Simple tense except in the case of verb be.

I cannot understand what it means. If there are two verbs in a sentence be ( auxiliary verb) and a main verb. Does it mean that main verb will also be in past simple.

For Instance:

If I were(auxiliary) to go to / went / going/ go America.

Which form of main verb will be correct and why?

What about the present subjunctive it always has the base form of verb (infinitive without to), and it is same in both present and past situations.

Can someone explain by giving elaborated examples? I would be so thankful.


1 Answer 1


There are two schools of thought about the "past" subjunctive (which rarely if ever refers to past events; the word "past" refers to its form rather than its meaning).

The syncretic view of the "past" subjunctive

The traditional school of thought is that the past subjunctive is identical to the past indicative for every verb except "to be", whose past subjunctive form is always "were" (even when the indicative would be "was"). So if you have "If I said" or "if I went" then you can't tell whether the verb is subjunctive or not, whereas if you have "if I were" then it must be subjunctive.

(So, your rule - that the past subjunctive has the same form as the simple present - is simply about the fact that "if I said" could equally well be indicative or subjunctive. It has nothing to do with "were" or to the second verb in expressions such as "were to say".)

The irrealis mood-form

Today some linguists, following Huddleston and Pullum, say that it's nonsensical to talk of an entire mood that differs from the indicative in only a single verb. So they make a strong case for instead considering "were" as an isolated mood-form which they label the irrealis form (because "irrealis" is Latin for unreal, and the irrealis form is used to discuss unreal or counterfactual conditions).

Some speakers rarely if ever use the irrealis form. It is generally acceptable to use the simple past instead, although "were" (where applicable) is still preferred in formal usage.

"Were" + full infinitive

We can use "were" followed by the full infinitive to work around the fact that there is no distinct irrealis form of any other verb. So instead of "if I went", we can say "if I were to go" to emphasise the counterfactual nature of the condition.

So yes, you could say "if I went to America", "if I were going to America" or "if I were to go to America". The middle option, "if I were going", has a different shade of meaning, being a variant of "if I was going".

The "present" subjunctive

The "present" subjunctive is identical to the base form of the verb (the bare infinitive) so is generally distinct only in the third person singular and also in the case of "be". The present subjunctive is hardly ever used for hypotheticals (and usually sounds archaic when it is). It is used in a few set phrases (so be it) and in mandative expressions in subordinate clauses (especially in AmE): "she asked that he leave the premises". These mandatives are often found where the main clause is in the past tense (as in my example).

British English tends to prefer to use "should": "she asked that he should leave the premises" - although pure subjunctives are also found. Alternatively, "she asked him to leave the premises" is also a very common way of expressing the same thing.

  • @rjpond...I was too confused in this. * I were went* also seemed possible at one time. Thanks for your elaborated answer. Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 8:18
  • To the best of my knowledge, "I were went" has never been possible, and if it has, it is thoroughly obsolete now.
    – rjpond
    Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 8:22

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