Language Learning: Subjunctives in Foreign Languages: English, German, Spanish and French (Part 2)
In my first article on the use of the subjunctive when learning a language, we saw how, in English, the past subjunctive form of "to be" - that uses "were" for all persons: if I were, if you were, if he were, if we/you/they were - has largely given way to the use of simple past forms: "If I was rich, if you were rich, if he was rich" etc.
Why is this? Well, in the case of the subjunctive mood, the reason is that the verb forms used for this type of subjunctive (somewhat confusingly known as the "past subjunctive" form, even though, in examples such as the one above, it is used in a present tense situation: "If I were rich right now...") are for the most part identical to the forms of the simple past.
A short look at the forms of the verb "to be", both in simple past tense, as well as our past subjunctive, will make things clearer:
Past tense: I was, you were, he/she/it was; we were, you were, they were.
Past Subjunctive (but used for present tense, remember?): I were, you were, he/she/it were, we were, you were, they were.
If the forms "I were" and "he were" seem strange to you, remember that these are used in the subjunctive mood, in sentences such as:
"If I were you, I would not do that." or: "If he were here, he would agree with me."
However, many people would, in the second sentence, say:
"If he was here, he would agree with me" (That is, using the past tense form "was" instead of the subjunctive form "were"), and yet practically no one would do this in the first sentence. Or have you ever heard anyone say "If I was you, I wouldn't do that?" Here, everyone uses the subjunctive "were".
Well, if you expect people to always speak in a way consistent with the logical rules of grammar, you are in for a lot of disappointments in life! And seriously speaking, why should they? Language is alive; it grows, and changes as people use it. What today is considered a misuse of a certain verb form will, as long as enough people make the same mistake over a long enough period of time, one day be considered correct.
But let's get back to the forms in the past tense, and past subjunctive (used for present tense).
You will see that in the past tense, the first and third persons singular are "was" (I was, he was); all the other forms are "were". In the subjunctive, however, "were" is used for all the persons. Therefore, if we begin a sentence in, for example, the second person: "If you were...", we cannot tell whether the rest of the sentence will follow in conditional - e.g. "If you were in Rome, you would visit the Vatican", or whether that "were" is simple past: "If you were in Rome last year, you never told me!"
No wonder so many people have (usually subconsciously) chosen to simply use the more-common past tense forms - including "was", even in conditional sentences of the speculative type, that really require the subjunctive form!
In Part 3 of this series, we will have a look at the past subjunctive forms of other English verbs; in subsequent articles, we will examine some of their counterparts in those tongues most familiar to Americans who are learning a language: Spanish, German and French.
Back to first article: 1) Envision your Goal