Why does "past tense" and "subjunctive" have the same form?

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  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    You mean in English, presumably. Historically there are two (inflectional) tenses, present and past. Both of those had indicative and subjunctive forms. The present subjunctive lacks the -s of the third person singular, and can be used with requests, commands etc.

    We request that she get the position.
    We recommend that she be hired. ('be' used instead of 'is')

    This is less used in Modern English, so the past subjunctive is the main use of a subjunctive, and now it looks just like the ordinary past (except I were and he/she/it were).

    In Old English, as in German today, there was more difference between the indicative and subjunctive endings:
    None in ic lufie "I love", both moods, likewise past tense ic lufode "I loved".
    But he lufaþ "he loves" indicative, he lufie "he love" subjunctive; past tense he lufode both indicative and subjunctive.
    And so on. Some personal endings were the same, others were different.

    In Middle English (c. 1150 to 1450) some endings were lost, and others were reduced. For example, the plural form of the past tense was lufodon in the indicative, lufoden subjunctive, in Old English, but the distinction between the vowels was lost in late Old English. And there was also a replacement of those forms that did differ, earlier in the North of England, so that the past subjunctive came to be the same as the past indicative in Middle English.
     

    selfzhouxinrong

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    "If I were you. I would..." means "if I were you now. I would..." It’s present tense.
    Why does “past subjunctive” need to be used here?Why not use present subjunctive?:thank you:
    Thank you !
     

    Perseas

    Senior Member
    "Present subjunctive" and "past subjunctive" refer to the form of the verb rather than its meaning. Here are two quotes from wikipedia:

    ...the name past subjunctive refers to the form of the verb rather than its meaning; it need not (and in fact usually does not) refer to past time.
    The form is called the present subjunctive because it resembles the present indicative in form, not because it need refer to the present time.[citation needed] In fact this form can equally well be used in sentences referring to past, future or hypothetical time (the time frame is normally expressed in the verb of the main clause.
    English subjunctive - Wikipedia
     

    selfzhouxinrong

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    "Present subjunctive" and "past subjunctive" refer to the form of the verb rather than its meaning.
    so why we need two forms of subjunctive?("Present subjunctive" and "past subjunctive" )

    For two meanings?
    "Present subjunctive" for "It I think it could be real" and "Past subjunctive" for "I think it can't be real" ? :thank you: :)
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    "If I were you. I would..." means "if I were you now. I would..." It’s present tense.
    Why does “past subjunctive” need to be used here?Why not use present subjunctive?:thank you:
    Thank you !
    See also here, where a very similar question of yours has been answered. The answer also explains why past subjunctive is used in the above sentence:
    Past subjective ... expresses hypotheticalness
     

    Delvo

    Senior Member
    American English
    The past & present subjunctive have bad names.


    "Past" subjunctive is used merely to describe what an imagined alternative is or was, without any attempt to cause or change it. "Present" subjunctive is used to describe an attempt to change an outcome or cause something to happen, to make an imagined event real. Notice what the example sentences here depict somebody doing, which the subjunctive verbs describe:

    insist (trying to get somebody to do something the insister wants)
    ask (again, trying to get somebody to do something the asker wants)
    recommend (again, trying to get somebody to do something the recommender recommends)
    brake (this time trying to get a car to do what the driver wants)
    be a necessary condition for bail (withholding bail to get somebody to do what is required)

    The only present subjunctive example with a bit of ambiguity in its meaning is "be desirable", because it uses passive voice to hide who desires it, but, the way it's actually used is to express a desire of the person who is speaking and try to get the listener to do what the desirer desires.

    Also notice that the same Wikipedia link also calls present subjunctive "mandative", because it describes attempts to mandate what will happen.
     

    gburtonio

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    The past & present subjunctive have bad names.


    "Past" subjunctive is used merely to describe what an imagined alternative is or was, without any attempt to cause or change it. "Present" subjunctive is used to describe an attempt to change an outcome or cause something to happen, to make an imagined event real. Notice what the example sentences here depict somebody doing, which the subjunctive verbs describe:

    insist (trying to get somebody to do something the insister wants)
    ask (again, trying to get somebody to do something the asker wants)
    recommend (again, trying to get somebody to do something the recommender recommends)
    brake (this time trying to get a car to do what the driver wants)
    be a necessary condition for bail (withholding bail to get somebody to do what is required)
    While I mainly agree with your analysis here, I think what really holds these forms together is that they express deontic modality, which is a broader concept than just attempting to cause change or make imagined events real. For example, in the sentence 'The bad weather necessitated that he cancel the expedition', there is no attempt to change something. The thing that caused the change is inanimate.

    The only present subjunctive example with a bit of ambiguity in its meaning is "be desirable", because it uses passive voice to hide who desires it, but, the way it's actually used is to express a desire of the person who is speaking and try to get the listener to do what the desirer desires.
    This is not passive – just the verb 'be' with an adjective. I'd say it's ambiguous as to whether the speaker him/herself desires the action to be carried out.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    The past & present subjunctive have bad names.


    "Past" subjunctive is used merely to describe what an imagined alternative is or was, without any attempt to cause or change it.
    Indeed, synchronically the labels are to be understood purely morphologically and not semantically. In some languages the tense labels have therefore been dropped like in German where they are simply called Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II. The logical evolution leading to the current use is still fairly transparent. The Germanic subjunctive in general evolved from and expresses the optative mood. How optative can transform to express hypotheticalness, present as expressing a possible scenario and past as an unreal or at least unlikely one, I find relatively easy to see.
     
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    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Until reading this thread I had never heard of "were" as in "If I were you" referred to as the past subjunctive.

    As Berndf suggests, many grammar terms used to describe morphology are labelled according to the main or significant use of the form. In some cases linguists looking for better terms leads to confusion.
     
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