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I know the basic rules of the subjunctive mood. You use the past tense in the if-clause and use "would" in the main clause.

  • I would buy a big house if I had a million dollars.

How about "want"? Is it possible to use "want" in the main clause?

  • I want to buy a big house if I had a million dollars.

To buy a house is only a supposition, but I really do want a big house. Is it OK to use "want" here? If not, how about "would want"?

  • I would want to buy a big house if I had a million dollars.

But I think the meaning of this sentence is slightly different from my intention because I really do want a big house. The fact I want a big house is not hypothetical.

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    It's not how you mean it, but there's an idiomatic use of your last example, where you show disdain for somebody else's desires upon such a windfall Young flibbertigibbet: "If I had a million dollars I would spend it all on wine, women and song". Old, wiser prude in reply: "I would want to buy a big house if I had a million dollars".
    – mcalex
    Feb 8, 2023 at 6:59
  • I don't know which rule makes it this way, but I think the second one should be "I want to buy a big house if I have a million dollars."
    – user253751
    Feb 9, 2023 at 10:06

4 Answers 4

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Wanting a big house isn't dependent on having a lot of money - being able to buy one is! So your sentence doesn't really work.

You could say "I want/would like to buy a big house. If only I had a million dollars!". Or "I would buy a big house if I had a million dollars."

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    Or "I want to buy a big house if I ever have a million dollars". Feb 8, 2023 at 0:57
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[1] I would buy a big house [if I had a million dollars].

[2] I would want to buy a big house [if I had a million dollars].

Preliminary point: English does not have a subjunctive mood; in fact virtually the only mood remaining in today's English is that marked by modal auxiliaries.

What we do have, though, is a type of construction called a 'subjunctive clause', which is headed by a plain form verb, as in It is vital that I be kept informed.

Your examples are not subjunctive at all, but conditionals where the bracketed elements are modal preterites, a use of the preterite "had" where the meaning has to do with modality, not time.

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    And, as far as I know, the only conjugation rule for the subjunctive in English is that the verb be in the infinitive form. Just about every subjective example I've ever seen includes the verb to be in some form (just so you can see the subjunctiveness): "It's important that I be there tomorrow"
    – Flydog57
    Feb 7, 2023 at 19:50
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    @Flydog57 Another time that there is a distinguishing subjunctive form is for the third-person singular where the 's' of the indicative mood is dropped: "It is important that she stay by your side" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive). However, I think this distinction is dying (at least in my dialect) and I don't think I'd hear "It's important that she stays by your side," as wrong. Feb 7, 2023 at 20:05
  • Or @WaterMolecule: "It's important that I'm there tomorrow". My experience with the subjunctive is unusual. I grew up an anglophone (a primarily English speaker) in Montreal and other places in Quebec. As such, I had French as a second language classes from the first grade (grade 1 in Canadian). By the end of high school, I had the French subjunctive mostly down pat, but no native understanding of it. Then I took a semester of German. The German instructor pointed out the relationship between the English subjective and the German on. Suddenly, everything made sense.
    – Flydog57
    Feb 7, 2023 at 20:13
  • @Flydog57 Subjunctive clauses are not limited to "be". Other verbs are possible, provided they are plain forms (infinitives), e.g. "I insisted that he meet her"; "They demanded that the park remain open". The subjunctive in English is not a mood but a type of construction, as in those examples.
    – BillJ
    Feb 8, 2023 at 12:58
  • Given that ‘subjunctive’ is such a vague term that means different things in different languages, I’m still to understand what benefit there is to labelling the plain-form construction ‘subjunctive’, but not the irrealis invariant-3pl construction. Both derive historically from the subjunctive mood, both are characterised by a lack of subject agreement, and both map equally well to similar subjunctives in related languages. Calling one a subjunctive construction and the other a ‘modal preterite (with special conjugation)’ seems entirely arbitrary to me. Feb 8, 2023 at 13:27
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As a native British English speaker, your first example:

I would buy a big house if I had a million dollars.

...sounds fine, your second example:

I want to buy a big house if I had a million dollars.

...sounds wrong, and your third example:

I would want to buy a big house if I had a million dollars

...sounds fine for me. It definitely has a subtly different meaning from #1 — I think to me it would emphasise that (unlike in the first option) buying the house is not a definite outcome of you getting a million dollars, but it's something you would strongly consider doing then and only then.

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There's no need for any subjunctive or conditional parts in this sentence. Everything that you're trying to say is real, not hypothetical. The two points you're trying to make are:

  • you want to buy a big house;
  • you don't have a million dollars.

You can connect these two ideas in a single sentence like this.

I want to buy a big house, but I don't have a million dollars.

Some people would omit the comma.

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