Was/were in past tense subjunctive.

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!

I don’t suppose you’d be happy with the notion of the native speaker test? No?

The tense to use after “as though” depends on the temporal relationship between what precedes it and what comes after. “He looked as though he were an angel’s son” is correct, as is “He looked as though he had been born of an angel”.

“He looks as though he were an angel’s son” definitely grates on my ears, though.

He looked like an angel’s son about to laugh.

I like simple grammar.

I can’t answer your question, but I have noticed lately that the proper use of was/were is fading, even by professional writers. It is a minor pet peeve of mine, so it stands out for me. Most recently I noticed it in a Dean Koontz novel: If I was…

There are times when the indicative is the proper mood even after “if” or “as though,” and bluntly how to define the distinction escapes me. The one thing I can say is that the subjunctive is required for absolute contrafactual circumstances, while both moods are correct in varying circumstances surrounding the not-yet-resolved. The proper statement in October 2004 would have been the indicative “If Kerry becomes President…” not the subjunctive “If Kerry become President…” [For the record, the present subjunctive of “to be” is a simple “be”: “If you be the Christ, then…” (from one of the Gospels). ]

For most verbs, the present subjunctive (which is exceptionally rare) is the verb without the third-person-singular -s, and the past subjunctive is identical with the indicative. With the exception of “thou wert,” the past subjunctive of “to be” is always “were.”

I don’t think there’s any better advice to be found than just use what sounds good to you. Back when English had a more fleshed-out verbal system, no doubt the rules were stricter, but the subjunctive in English is fading away, and has been for a long time. It’s mostly only used in very specific constructions - “If I were”, “I insist that he be”, etc. Beyond that, I think you have to go by feel. After all, language is something that people create by talking and writing, not something handed down from above.