I’m usually pretty confident about my grammatical knowledge. If I don’t know it myself, I know where to look.
But when it comes to the subjunctive mood, it seems that even books on grammar don’t have it all quite figured out.
We’re all told that in contrary-to-present-fact conditional constructions, “were” is the proper word to use:
The construction that teachers are likely to slap you on the wrist for using is, “If I was a rich man,” although this is commonly used.
In the past tense, things get quite murky, however. For straight-up contrary-to-past-fact conditionals, “had been” is the proper locution:
It is in constructions with “as though,” however, that I see no consensus. Which of the following is correct?
I think we’ve all seen both of these in print. From what I can gather, “was” is the correct construction, whether the phrase following “as though” is contrary to fact or not (about to laugh, an angel’s son).
Come to think of it, this is also confusing in the present tense, in which the following each seem to be correct:
What I’m getting at, though, is that this “were” does not work in the past tense; it should be “was.”
Now before you grammar experts come back with a snap judgement, I’d like to reiterate that I think this is not an easy problem. I’ve looked for answers in old books (Leviathan), in grammar manuals, on the Web, everywhere. I haven’t yet found a source that specifically dealt with this particular construction, though they seem to cover most everything else.
Bonus thoughts on the subjunctive
My impression that that the subjunctive in English has never been particularly clear or consistently employed, even by good, learned writers. Further, sticklers for the “proper” use of the subjunctive these days miss the fact that we are missing many of the constructions that once were in use.
One of the majors is the present conditional which is not necessary contrary to present fact; it simply covers the unknown:
*If he be amenable to our plan, then we will pay him handsomely.
If he have any doubts whatsoever, let us put them to rest.
If there be anyone here who loves me, let him speak.*
So, we drop all that yet still worry about “If I were a donkey” vs “If I was a donkey.”
At any rate your erudite thoughts will be appreciated. Thanks!