Thanks to this question I got to know this site, but after three years have passed, I still have a tough time understanding!

Why doesn’t “make believe” take the subjunctive mood?


… the act of making believe really did occur in the past. Even if though make-believe involves pretending things that aren't real, the activity itself is not hypothetical, so it is not in the subjunctive mood.

This is not persuasive to me because I’m questioning about the object noun clause that is picturing the content of pretending, i.e., the kid’s imagination; not about the one picturing the act of his pretending itself.

That answer given in the YT comments apparently relied upon this page I had referred to therein:

"imagine" subjunctive

When using "pretend", you almost always use the indicative either in the past or present: "The children like to pretend they are kings." This exists this way because the children actually play the part of being kings, whereas "Pretend that I were king" means the equivalent of "Suppose (or Imagine) I were king. I am asking you to imagine this in your mind, rather than play the part in make-believe.

To pretend always implies both to play the part and to suppose or imagine at the same time. When I say “Pretend that I were king,” I’m asking you not just to imagine something in your mind but also to play the part of it actually. When the children make believe that they are kings, they are not only playing the parts but also imagining they were kings.

a) Put yourself in a cardboard box and pretend that you were an astronaut.

b) The kid plays in a cardboard box as if he were an astronaut.

c) The kid pretends (or makes believe) in a cardboard box that he were an astronaut.

I think a) and b) are both correct, but supposedly c) is wrong. Why?

My speculation is that the subjunctive past is used for imaginations generated in the speaker. In fact, a) and b) are both arguably expressing the speakers’ imaginations, whereas being an astronaut in c) is not the speaker’s imagination but an imagination imagined by the kid.

c’) The kid pretends (or makes believe) in a cardboard box that he is an astronaut.

The sentence c’) just depicts the act of the kid, which has nothing to do with the speaker’s imagination. And that’s why the indicative mood is correctly used in c’).

That’s my thought. I’d really love to have your critiques and criticism!

  • 1
    Where do you get that “make believe” doesn't take the subjunctive mood? It doesn't fit in C, but could fit in other sentences. Make believe I were a carpenter, and you were a lady. Sep 18, 2023 at 15:24
  • 3
    Where are you getting this subjunctive mood stuff from? There is no system of mood in Present-day English; it was lost in earlier stages of the language. Leaving aside irrealis "were", there is not one single verb in English that inflects for mood.
    – BillJ
    Sep 18, 2023 at 16:11
  • @BillJ "The king decreed the cardboard box be (not is) recycled." "He will find all the cafes closed if he arrive (not arrives) late." Aren't both of these inflected for mood - to distinguish present subjunctive from the indicative? (Although, the second sentence would be equally valid with the indicative mood.) Sep 18, 2023 at 17:05
  • 1
    @QuackE.Duck No: we now talk of the subjunctive not as a type of mood but as a clause type that uses the plain form of the verb. Forget 'indicative' ; it does no work.
    – BillJ
    Sep 18, 2023 at 17:24
  • What do you mean by subjunctive there? [correction: This does not persuade me because I question the use of the noun clause "pretending that things aren't real" Generally, we don't pretend in a place but if we did do that, it wouldn't be in a box. He pretends on the playground he is an astronaut.
    – Lambie
    Feb 16 at 14:39

1 Answer 1


pretend/make believe and {act} as if are the inverse of each other.

The kid pretends he is an astronaut.

The verb pretend takes as its complement a statement of fact; the complement of pretends is a finite clause with no shift of verb tense(old-school "present indicative"): he is an astronaut.

[NOTE: pretends can also take an infinitival clause complement: He pretends to be an astronaut.]

Why: You can only pretend to be something real which, in actuality, you are not. The complement expresses the reality; the matrix verb pretends itself expresses the unreality.

You can {act} as if you are something you are not, and thus as if takes a finite clause with the verb shifted to reflect the irrealis situation:

The kid talks as if he were an astronaut: "Houston, we have a problem."

He walks as if he were an astronaut in zero-G.

The matrix verb (talks, walks, etc) expresses a real action; the clausal complement expresses the unreality.

Pretend : non-shifted (old-school indicative) complement

{act} as if : irrealis complement

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