This very interesting grammar question was e-mailed to me recently by reader Doris Cheng from Hong Kong: “How do we know if a sentence that uses ‘were’ is indicative or subjunctive?”
Here’s my reply to Doris:
Let’s start with a quick review of the uses of “were.” Ordinarily, the linking verb “be” takes the past-tense form “were” when the subject of the sentence is in the third-person plural. In the sentence “The villagers were happy,” for instance, “be” takes the form “were” because “villagers”—the subject—is in the third-person plural and the action is in the past tense. (Of course, when the subject is the third-person singular “villager” and the action is in the present tense, the verb “be” takes the normal form “is”: “The villager is happy.”)
Sentences like “The villagers were happy” and “The villager is happy” are statements in the so-called indicative mood, which conveys the idea that a condition or act is an objective fact, an opinion, or the subject of a question. In statements in this mood, the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner, and in such cases the linking verb “is” takes its normal inflections in all the tenses and obeys the subject-verb agreement rule.
The polar opposite of the indicative mood is the subjunctive mood, which conveys possibility, conditionality, or wishfulness rather than stating an objective fact or condition, as in “If I were the dean of that college, I would have fired that incompetent professor by now” or “They wish that their president were more circumspect in his pronouncements.” Note that in the first sentence, the linking verb “be” is in the plural past-tense form “were” although the subject is the singular first-person noun “I,” and that in the second sentence, “be” is likewise is in the plural past-tense form “were” although the subject is the singular third-person noun “president.”
Now I’m ready to answer your question on how to figure out if a sentence that uses “were” is subjunctive rather than indicative. It is subjunctive when regardless of the person and number of the subject, the linking verb “be” takes the plural past-tense form “were” instead of “was” or “is.”
Here now are the specific situations that need the subjunctive “were” instead of the indicative “was” or “is:”
1. When the sentence indicates a supposition or possibility. In “if”-clauses indicating a supposition or possibility, the subjunctive “were” is used regardless of whether the doer of the action is singular or plural: “If I were to accept that foreign assignment, I’d have to take my family with me.” “Many legislators would be indicted for graft if the Ombudsman were to apply the law regardless of their party affiliation.”
2. When expressing a desire or wishful attitude. In “that”-clauses that follow main clauses expressing a wish, the subjunctive “were” is used: “I wish (that) she were more amenable to a compromise.” “I wish (that) I were the class president.” In such constructions, the wish or desired outcome is neither a present reality nor a future certainty.
3. When describing the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact. Given a certain condition that’s unreal or contrary to fact, the subjunctive “were” is used to denote a hypothetical state or outcome: “If its polar electromagnetic field were not there, Earth would be devastated by intense solar radiation.” Without “if,” such constructions can sometimes take an inverted syntax: “Were its polar electromagnetic field not there, Earth would be devastated by intense solar radiation.”
4. When expressing doubt about certain appearances or raising a question about an outcome. Statements that cast doubt on observed behavior or raise a question about a presumed outcome often take the subjunctive “were” form: “Rod acted as if he were the only knowledgeable newspaperman in town.”
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