Grammar Help: Subjunctive/Conditional Tense

As we get closer to offering a complete online grammar course here at Write My Memoirs, I want to give you a sneak peek at some of the topics we’ll be covering. The subjunctive tense, also called the conditional tense, is a minor grammar point in real life and conversation. But when you put your name as author on a book, you want your words to reflect current best practices in grammar and writing. So let’s go over this.

The subjunctive tense is a verb tense just like present, past and future. Instead of concerning a time perspective, however, the subjunctive tense applies to any hypothetical situation. Typically, you can identify a hypothetical situation by the use of a word like “if,” “suppose” or “imagine.” When you’re just imagining something might occur, or you’re wondering whether it could happen, rather than the singular “was” you should use the past tense plural “were” to construct this type of sentence, even when the subject is singular.

Probably the most easily recognized example is the phrase, “If I were you.” In any other context, you’d pair the singular pronoun “I” with the verb “was” to indicate past tense. You’d say, “I was going to ask you a question,” or “I was happy that we had a nice day for the picnic.” It’s not natural to say “I were…,” but it does sound natural in the phrase “If I were you” because it’s correct. You’re imagining “if I were you.” If it’s not hypothetical, you’d say, “I’m pretty sure that I was you in my past life.” In that case, you’re stating an assumption, not posing a hypothetical. Another recognizable example of the correct construction is the song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man.”

So if I were going to make sure I learned the finer points of grammar, I would practice the conditional/subjunctive tense. Suppose a man were to sign up on Write My Memoirs, and imagine that a woman were intending to do the same—they both would be welcome here, where correct grammar is always appreciated!