Can you imagine there is a policeman here? How can you tell him the whole thing?

Can you imagine there were a policeman here? How could you tell him the whole thing?

I am a little confused about whether I should use subjunctive here. The word "imagine", I think, means a different situation from the real one, right? So I am confused it.

And, if "imagine" should be used with subjunctive, how about other words that also have a similar meaning? If "imagine" is ok without subjunctive, how about other words that also have a similar meaning? Thank you guys for helping me!!

  • 3
    I don't think subjunctive really works here, but it's not easy to say why. Idiomatically I've no problem with Imagine there were two policemen here, because we often use simple past as an alternative to subjunctive, and in my example there's no obvious way distinguish the usages. Same as Officer! You wouldn't have stopped me if I were white!, which would be unlikely from an uneducated black driver (he'd say if I was white). But with two guys in the car, if we were white could be simple past or subjunctive (except he'd probably still say if we was white :) Commented May 30, 2015 at 16:42

2 Answers 2


Yes, you are correct. The verb "imagine" does open up a past subjunctive clause:

"I can imagine [that] there were a policeman there."

Most native English speakers hate the subjunctive so they would try to say this differently: i.e. "Can you imagine a police officer here?" Here are examples of the past subjunctive using the "to be" verb and other verbs as well:

"Imagine that you were on a deserted island and I were with you and I told you not to panic." (All italicized words are in the past subjunctive.)

"Suppose I were dead." (This differs from "I suppose I am dead", which means that I think I am dead. You only use the past subjunctive after verbs like "imagine", "suppose", or even "pretend" when talking about picturing things not real in your mind. "I suppose [or imagine] you're here to arrest me" does not mean to picture it in your mind; it basically means "think" in this situation; however, "I want you to suppose (or imagine) it were true" is completely hypothetical. 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.)

"I would be so embarrassed if he said that to me."

"John talks (or talked) as if he spoke fluent English."

"Don't treat me as though I were a child."

"He wishes (or wished) that he were better at English."

"He imagined that he were living on the moon." (When using "imagine" in the past tense, always use the past subjunctive in the "that-clause" afterwards for contrary-to-fact situations; thus, "He imagines that he were living on the moon" and "He imagined that he were living on the moon" are correct no matter what the tense may be.)

The past subjunctive is identical to the past indicative in every verb in Modern English except "to be", in which case it is always "were" when it is in the past subjunctive. This differs, though, when one uses the archaic second-person singular form "thou" in conjugations, which is still used poetically, in the Bible, and seen throughout old literature like Shakespeare. However, many of the forms in literature using "thou" aren't totally correct because "thou" was used before the rules of English grammar were formulated. Despite this, we can look at the paradigm from Old and Middle English to see what the prescriptive form would be versus what may be seen in written archaic literature. It must be remembered that the subjunctive was becoming moribund in Early Modern English when this literature was being written.

"Thou spokest too soon." (past indicative)

"If thou spoke up, they would listen." (past subjunctive)

"Thou hadst time yesterday." (past indicative)

"If thou had time, they would come by." (past subjunctive)

Again, this rule above is not always followed using "thou" and it is seldom followed when using modals in the subjunctive such as "thou wouldst" or "thou shalt". In this sense, it will be written with an -st inflectional affix whether it be subjunctive or not. In the end, "thou" isn't something one has to worry about since it is archaic and only comes up in biblical, religious, poetic, or archaic literature.

  • Wow, this is so good an answer! A very analytical, practical, academic explanation! I am not OP, but it helped me understand it a lot. By the way, "This is so good an answer." is correct? I am not native, so it's hard for me to tell. Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 8:08

If you're using 'were' in your subjunctive mood, then you're using the past subjunctive.

As the linked Grammaring article points out:

Traditionally, the past subjunctive form of 'be' is 'were' for all persons, including the first and third person singular. However, today "I/he/she/it was" is more common while 'were' is mainly used in formal styles and in the set phrase "if I were you".

I find this to be very true. In my research for this answer, I've seen many supposedly correct example sentences involving 'were' that looked incredibly awkward to me, if not actually wrong.

So, while "Can you imagine there were a policeman here?" might be technically correct, it sounds pretty odd to me.

These would all be fine ways to ask someone if they can imagine a hypothetical policeman being present at the current time and spot:

  1. Can you imagine a policeman here?
  2. Can you imagine there being a policeman here?
  3. Can you imagine a policeman being here?
  4. Can you imagine (that) there is a policeman here?
  5. Can you imagine (that) a policeman is here?

On the other hand, if you add 'if' to the sentence, all of a sudden 'were' sounds okay:

  1. Can you imagine if there were a policeman here?
  2. Can you imagine if a policeman were here?
  • I don't believe that to imagine and an if-clause go together. It makes no sense.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 20:03
  • @rogermue What? How could that not make sense? Here's a Google search with plenty of examples.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 20:07
  • Sorry, I didn't believe that to imagine + an if-clause is used. But I see it is used. It must be an Americanism. And I'm still baffled. Nevertheless, even if it is used, I still think it is a wrong construction even if used.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 5:08
  • @rogermue I'm quite interested in how that construction could possibly be confusing or strange. 'If' is used to start a hypothetical, where you are talking about a situation that doesn't exist, but could. 'Imagine' is used to talk about a situation that doesn't exist, but could. It couldn't be a more natural pairing.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 17:12
  • One normal construction with "imagine" would be: Imagine that you would be blind. There are others. But "imagine if" is a twisted construction. Obviously used so often in spoken language that most people don't realise that it is a twisted and elliptic construction derived from: Imagine (what it would be like) if you were blind. Of course, other expressions with would are possible as "what the situation would be like if ...". But "imagine if" has the advantage that it is short. That may be the cause that it was accepted in spoken language. @DCShannon
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 17:27

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