UNREAL TIME AND SUBJUNCTIVES
The past tense is sometimes used in English to refer to an unreal situation. Although the tense is the past, we are usually talking about the present, e.g. in a Type 2 conditional sentence:
If dogs had wings, they would be able to fly.
Although had is in the past tense, we are not referring to the past - we are talking about a hypothetical situation. We call this the unreal past.
Other situations where this occurs are:
§ After other words and expressions like ‘if’ (suppose/supposing, if only, what if, imagine)
§ After the verb ‘to wish’
§ After the expressions I’d rather; I’d prefer; It’s time….
It's (high) time
The above expression is followed by past simple or continuous, though the time referred to is unreal.
It’s time we left. It’s high time I was going.
It's high time you hung up your trainers and started exercising your mind, not your body.
- Present/Future time
The verb to wish is followed by an unreal past tense when we want to talk about situations in the present that we are not happy about and would want to change a present/future state.
I wish I had a motorbike. (I don’t have one now.)
I wish you weren’t leaving. (You are leaving.)
Would is used when the speaker wants somebody or something else to change, or to describe an annoying habit.
I wish he would stop smoking.
I wish it would stop raining.
I wish you wouldn’t make such a mess.
- Past time
As with present wishes, when we refer to situations in the past we are not happy about or about actions that we regret, the verb form after wish is one stage further back in the past, so we use wish followed by the past participle. Same is used after if only to express regrets.
I wish I hadn’t said that.(but I did) If only I hadn’t eaten so much. (but I did)
Wishes about simple future events are expressed with hope.
I hope it doesn’t (won’t) rain tomorrow.
I hope you(‘ll) have a lovely time in Portugal (on your holiday next week).
I’d rather/I’d prefer (followed by a clause)
- I’d rather is followed by past verb forms in the same way as wishes about the present. It expresses preference about actions.
I’d rather you didn’t smoke in here.
Both I’d rather and I’d sooner are used with normal verb forms when comparing nouns or phrases.
I’d rather be a sailor than a soldier. (present)
I’d rather have lived in Ancient Greece than Ancient Rome. (past)
- I’d prefer can be used in the same way, but note that prefer in this type of sentence has an object it.
I’d prefer it if you didn’t go.
However, I’d prefer is not followed by an unreal verb form in other situations.
I’d prefer tea to coffee.
I‘d prefer you to go swimming (rather than go jogging).
As if, as though – Real and unreal
The verb form used with as if/as though depends on whether the situation is true or unreal.
You look as if you’re having second thoughts. (True. He is having second thoughts.)
He acts as if he were in charge. (Unreal. He isn’t in charge)
Note, however, that the more colloquial like does not require this verb form change. Compare:
You look like you have just seen a ghost.
You look as if you had just seen a ghost.
Suppose and imagine – Understood conditions
The conditional part of these sentences is often understood but not stated.
Imagine we won the lottery!
Suppose/supposing someone told you that I was a spy!
Imagine we had never met! (we have met)
As with conditional sentences, if the event referred to is a real possibility, rather than imaginary, a present verb form is possible:
Suppose it starts raining, what’ll we do?
Formal Subjunctives - Insisting, demanding, etc.
After verbs such as demand, insist, suggest, require which involve an implied obligation, the subjunctive may be used in formal style. This has only one form, that of the infinitive, and there is no third person –s, or past form. The verb be has be for all forms.
They demanded that he leave at once.
The school Principal suggested that he be awarded a scholarship.
These are fixed expressions all using subjunctive. Typical expressions are:
God save the Queen!
Be that as it may …
Come what may ….
Suffice it to say ….
Far be it from me …but
be that as it may: (formal) despite that. Synonym nevertheless. E.g. I know that he has tried hard; be that as it may, his work is just not good enough.
come what may: despite any problems or difficulties you may have. E.g. He promised to support her come what may.
suffice (it) to say (that)… used to suggest that although you could say more, what you do say will be enough to explain what you mean. E.g. I won't go into all the details. Suffice it to say that the whole event was a complete disaster.
Far be it from me to do something: something that you say when you are giving advice or criticizing someone and you want to seem polite. It is not really my place to do something. (Always followed by but, as in the example.) Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but don't you think you should apologize? Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but I think you should buy the book.
More on the subjunctive:
The Subjunctive: Grammar
worldservice/learningenglish/ grammar/learnit/learnitv201. shtml
More on the subjunctive:
The Subjunctive: Grammar