I’m not sure whether to always use the subjunctive in all counter-factual or, at least, believed-to-be counter-factual clauses in sentences. I have no problem with constructions like:

If I were a prince, I would ...
(Fact: I’m not a prince.)

The room is so untidy, as if it had been hit by a tornado.
(The room wasn’t hit by a tornado.)

However, choosing the right mood becomes difficult for me when I’m faced with sentences such as the following:

When my mother is here, you need to act as if you care/cared for me (or love/loved me).
(Fact: You don’t care for [or love] me.)

Pocoyo is pretending that the broom is/were a guitar.
(Fact: The broom is not a guitar.)

Since the clauses in question are counter-factual, does that mean the subjunctive is the right choice?

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    cared for/is. The first one works by subjunctive mood. By using pretend, we already know it is a contrary-to-fact situation. No matter how hard one pretends, that broom is not a guitar. – user6951 Jun 22 '14 at 16:57

The difficulty is understandable, as the use of subjunctive in English is going away over time and is presently inconsistent. Let's clear up your second sentence first:

Pocoyo is pretending that the broom is a guitar.

We don't use the subjunctive here. I suppose we see the fact that Pocoyo is pretending, and that the "that" clause simply explains what he is pretending. Of course, we could look at it the other way, because it isn't a guitar, but either we don't do that anymore or we don't care to go to the trouble. This sounds vaguely Shakespearian:

Pocoyo pretendeth that the broom be a guitar.

Now, look at these:

Pocoyo is acting as if the broom were a guitar.
He needs to act as if he cares for me.
He needs to act as if he were more caring than he is.

You will see that we only use it here with the be verb. Since this verb is the most heavily-inflected in English (probably because it is also the most often-used), the subjunctive forms of it are holding on with more tenacity. This is an archaic construction:

Though he care for me, still must he also thus act.

Now we would say something like "Although he cares for me, he still has to act as if he does" ("act like it" is less formal).

Uses of the subjunctive with verbs other than be remain in fairly specific constructions, generally having to do with wishes, requirements, and the like. Here are some:

It's important that he finish the work by tomorrow.
It's necessary that Pocoyo pretend that the broom is a guitar.
It's desireable that he arrive by four o'clock.

These are more typical of AmE than BrE. The British will typically inject a "should" here: "It's important that he should finish...", for example.

We also use it when expressing a wish (these are sometimes analyzed as imperative rather than subjunctive):

God bless you.
May he win in the end.
God shed his grace on you, and crown your good with brotherhood.
Long live the king. (Long may the king live, may the king live a long time.)

Finally, we have other set phrases where it has remained intact over time:

If it please the court
Until death do us part (until death part us)
Perish the thought
Suffice it to say

We also have a number of these with be, often while we also have similar phrases that no longer use the subjunctive:

If the truth be told
Be that as it may
If need be
Far be it from me

Compare these similar phrases:

If one tells the truth
Whether or not that is so
If there is need

"Far be it from me" is more idiomatic than the other phrases ("far be it from me to do x" means that I emphatically wouldn't do x), so I can't think of a similar phrase that uses the indicative.

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  • Hi Bob. Can you tell me whether these two sentneces are using the past subjunctive form: 1) "I think it's high time you grew up." 2) "It would be nice to see you before I left."? Also, if the second is not in fact using the past subjunctive, is it ungrammatical on account of the verb left instead of leave, or is it grammatical as left has been backshifted? – HeWhoMustBeNamed Apr 2 at 22:59
  • @HeWhoMustBeNamed The first one is indeed the past subjunctive form, expressing a wish or desire. If you want to check it, you can put it in the third-person present: "I think it's high time that he grow up." The second one isn't using it, and it isn't exactly an example of backshifting either. (Here's a good writeup of backshifting.) "He said that it would be nice to see you before he left" is an example of backshifting; of course what he really said was that it would be nice to see you before he leaves. – BobRodes Apr 4 at 4:18
  • @HeWhoMustBeNamed In order to be backshifted, the sentence has to be in the context of reporting something from the past in this case. As for why it isn't subjunctive, "to see" is infinitive, and that's the part that is expressing the wish or desire. Look at these: "It's important that he see you before he leaves. See is in subjunctive, but leaves is in indicative. It's the seeing that's important in this sentence. – BobRodes Apr 4 at 4:29
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    For a doctoral dissertation on the subject of subjunctive use in modern English, see this. It's very dense stuff, but gives a lot of great examples and short explanations in the introductions to his chapters, before wading way into the weeds. – BobRodes Apr 4 at 4:37
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    @HeWhoMustBeNamed You might find browsing through these examples instructive. (Scroll down below the graph to read book examples.) You will find that most examples of "left" are fully in past tense or use "see" in the infinitive. – BobRodes Apr 7 at 6:28

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