Advanced Grammar for IELTS: The subjunctive and ‘unreal’ uses of past forms – Diagnostic Tests, Grammar Explanation and Practice Exercise
A DIAGNOSTIC TEST
The subjunctive and ‘unreal’ uses of past forms
Five of these sentences contain grammatical mistakes. Tick (✓) the correct sentences, then find and correct the mistakes.
Example: If only we can see the situation through his eyes.
- It is high time the country were told of the Prime Minister’s intentions
- I wish I would have green eyes like Elizabeth Taylor.
- The regulations require that each defendant in turn submit a sworn statement to the court
- If you only paid more attention!
- It’s high time we didn’t act so impulsively.
- If only the car would have been going more slowly!
- Long lives the President!
- If only that I had known.
Circle the best explanation (a or b).
Example: I’d sooner you paid me cash.
a I expect you to pay me soon.
b I prefer to be paid in cash.
- If only I was as tall as my brother.
a I used to be as tall as my brother.
b I am shorter than my brother.
- Get a move on! It’s high time we left for the airport.
a We are late.
b We have just left.
- Suppose we win the competition.
a I think we have a chance of winning.
b Winning is extremely unlikely.
- He bosses everyone around as if he owned the place.
a He owns the place
b He doesn’t own the place.
- She wishes she had a home of her own.
a She likes living in her own place.
b She would like to live in her own place.
- If only I could wear such bright clothes.
a Bright clothes don’t suit me.
b I’m the only one who can wear bright clothes.
Complete each sentence so that it means the same as the preceding sentence(s).
Example: I regret leaving the children with her.
==> I wish I hadn’t left the children with her.
- You ought to start doing your homework.
It’s high time you _____________________
- Would you have gone if you had been invited?
- I don’t want you to bring that smelly dog into this house.
I’d rather you_____________________________________
- I prefer wearing natural fabrics.
- He sounds quite convincing. Perhaps he knows what he is talking about.
He sounds as though__________________________________________
- You are always talking with your mouth full. I want you to stop doing it.
I wish you____________________________________________________
B GRAMMAR EXPLANATION: The subjunctive and ‘unreal’ uses of Past forms
We use the subjunctive form in certain fixed expressions and after some verbs and adjectives which express the idea of necessity, importance, etc. The subjunctive form can be used to refer to events and situations in the past, present or future. We use it mostly in formal and literary language.
After certain expressions we can also use past tenses to refer to the past, present or future, to describe things which are seen as ‘unreal’ or unlikely’ This is similar to the use of past tenses in conditionals. In this unit we look at the way we use past tenses after particular expressions and to express preference and necessity.
- THE SUBJUNCTIVE
1A. Form and use
The subjunctive form is the same as the infinitive (without to). It does not show any marking for tense and can be used to refer to events in the past, present or future. We use use it most often in that clauses after certain verbs (e.g. advise, ask. demand, insist, propose, recommend, request, suggest), and after adjectives (e.g. advisable, anxious, desirable, eager, essential, important, necessary, preferable, vital, willing), to express the idea that something is necessary or important:
At yesterday’s hearing the judge insisted (that) Mr Grant give evidence despite his relationship to the accused.
In future cases it will be vital that each party give full disclosure prior to trial.
We can use passive and negative forms of the subjunctive:
Members of the committee suggested England be excluded from future international tournaments.
Regulations require that officers not enter the crime scene without protective clothing.
The verb be has an alternative subjunctive form were which is sometimes called the past subjunctive and is used to talk about the imagined present or future and in conditionals.
1B. Informal alternatives
The subjunctive is used in reported speech, very formal language (e.g. regulations, legal documents) and in poetry:
She insisted that she pay her own way.
We require that all receipts be submitted to the committee for approval.
I know not whether laws be right.
Or whether laws be wrong. (Oscar Wilde)
As the use of the subjunctive is rather formal or literary in British English (it is less formal and more common in US English). British English speakers prefer to use should + infinitive or the forms listed below in most situations:
It is vital that every applicant complete the form in triplicate. (subjunctive)
It is vital that every applicant should complete the form in triplicate. (should + infinitive)
It is vital that every applicant completes the form in triplicat. (present simple)
It is vital for every applicant to complete the form in triplicate. (for + subject + to + infinitive)
1C. Fixed expressions
There are some fixed expressions which use subjunctive forms:
If he doesn’t want to see us, then so be it. (= then let it happen)
Long live the republic!
‘There’s very little chance of winning this case.’ ‘Be that as it may, I’m not going to give up fighting.’ (= Whether that is true or not, I’m not …)
I’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court if need be (= if this is necessary)
- THE ‘UNREAL’ PAST
2A. Form and use
After a number of expressions, like if only, we use past tenses (active and passive) to describe things in the present, past or future which are imagined or unreal. We sometimes refer to this use of past tenses as the ‘unreal’ past.
If only I was thin. (= I am not thin but I would like to be thin.)
Other introducing expressions like if only are: It’s time …. What if ….Suppose/Supposing…. would rather, would sooner, as if, as though, wish.
We can use the past simple or the past continuous after these expressions to talk about the imaginary present and future:
- Present: It’s time they were forced to dear up the mess. (They aren’t being forced to clear up at the moment.)
These kids act as if they owned the place. (They don’t own it.)
- Future: I wish I were coming with you tomorrow. (I am not coming with you tomorrow.)
We use the past perfect to refer to something unreal in the past:
Suppose the gun had been fired at me? (The gun wasn’t fired at me.)
I wish I’d never started this course. (I have started it.)
2B. was or were?
Many speakers prefer to use were for all persons when talking about the imagined present or future, especially in more formal situations and in US English. This form is sometimes called the past subjunctive and is also used in second conditional sentences:
Suppose I were to announce my candidacy at the next council meeting.
If only he were a little more convincing on the economic issues.
If I were you, I’d think twice before refusing that offer.
In the above examples we can also use was but this is more informal.
2C. It’s ( high/ about) time (that)
We use it’s time … to say that something is not happening and it should be:
It’s time we left. (= We aren’t leaving and we should.)
It’s about time you paid a visit to your grandparents. (= You should visit them.)
It’s high time that the voice of the people was heard in this House. (= Their voice isn’t being heard and it should be.)
Note: We cannot use a negative after it’s time …:
X It’s time we didn’t stay.
Note that we can also use it’s time to + infinitive or it’s time for + object + to + infinitive:
I’m afraid it’s time to put your books away now, children.
Come on everybody. It’s time for us to get on the coach.
2D. what if, suppose/ supposing (that)
We use what if, suppose / supposing (that) with the past simple or continuous to ask questions about an imaginary situation in the present or future and its possible consequences. These questions have similar form and meaning to those in second conditional sentences.
Suppose he asked you to marry him, what would you say? (= If he asked you to marry him, what would you say?)
Sentences with these expressions describing an imaginary situation in the past have a similar meaning to third conditional sentences.
Supposing your parents had refused, how would you have felt? (= If your parents had refused, how would you have felt?)
And what if he had been thrown out by the landlord? Where would he have gone?
We often use what if, suppose and supposing to make suggestions:
Suppose you paid the bill for once?
We use a present tense after these expressions to ask about an imaginary situation in the future that we think is likely or probable, or if we want to suggest that it is:
What if the plan doesn’t work?
Supposing he gets caught at customs? You know how vigilant they can be.
2E. would rather / would sooner
We use would rather / sooner with the past simple to describe preferences:
I’d sooner you gave me a cash refund. A credit note’s no use to me. (= I would prefer a refund/l wish you would give me a refund.)
They are often used as a polite way to give/refuse permission, or make suggestions:
I’d rather you didn’t smoke in here.
I’m not keen on the idea of staying in. I’d sooner we went out clubbing or something.
Note: If the person expressing a preference and the subject of the preference are the same we use an infinitive instead of the past tense. Compare:
We’d sooner you spent your bonus on something useful. (past tense: speaker and subject are not the same)
I’d rather spend it on something frivolous. (infinitive: speaker and subject are the same)
2F. as if / as though
We use the past simple after as if or as though to say that how something appears now does not match with reality:
He talks to the children as though they were imbeciles. (The speaker knows they aren’t imbeciles.)
They are acting as if nothing had happened. (The speaker knows something has happened.)
But we use a present tense (including the present perfect) after as if or as though to describe how things seem or appear when there is a possibility that the appearance reflects something real:
He sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about. (= Perhaps he does know.)
You look as though you haven’t eaten for days. (= You may not have eaten.)
We can use these expressions to be critical, ironic or sarcastic:
It isn’t as if he’s in any position to pass judgement! (= He probably isn’t in a position to do this.)
- WISH/IF ONLY
3A. wish/if only + past simple
We use wish/if only + past simple to express a desire for something to be different in the present:
I wish I had more free time. (= I don’t have much free time, but I would like some.)
The desire can be for something which is actually impossible:
If only I were young again.
3B. wish/if only + past perfect
We use wish/if only + past perfect to express a regret about the past, a wish that something different had happened:
I wish that you’d told me about this before I booked the tickets. (= I regret the fact that you didn’t tell me about this.)
If only he hadn’t been driving so fast! (= Unfortunately he was driving very fast.)
3C. Wish/if only + would
Wish/if only + would usually expresses a desire for someone to change their deliberate behaviour in the present or future:
I wish you’d stop looking at me like that. It’s terribly distracting. (= You keep looking at me and I want you to stop.)
We often use this form to criticise or complain about something:
I wish you’d stop shouting. I’m not deaf you know.
We can also use the form with inanimate subjects because although we know they have no conscious control over their actions (they are not human), we give them human characteristics for emphatic effect:
If only the sun would come out so we could get on with the filming. (= The sun ‘refuses’ to come out. I want it to come out.)
The change we desire must be possible, even if unlikely. We cannot use would for an impossible
change, e.g. one which the subject has no control over or a change to the past:
X I wish sports cars wouldn’t be so expensive. (Cars have no control over their price.)
✓ I wish sports cars weren’t so expensive. (+ past simple)
X If only nuclear bombs wouldn’t have been invented (a change to the past)
✓ If only nuclear bombs hadn’t been invented. (+ past perfect)
We can’t use would when the subject of the wish and the subject of the change are the same. Instead we use a past tense, or could :
X I wish i would be more energetic. (Subject of wish and would are the same.)
✓ If only I were more energetic.
✓ I wish I could be more energetic.
3D. wish/if only + could (have)
We use wish/if only + could have to describe a desire we know is impossible to achieve:
If only we could see the situation through his eyes. (We can’t.)
We often use the form when we are expressing an impossible desire about ourselves:
I wish I could dance but I’m afraid I’ve got two left feet.
We can use could have for a regret about the past. It means ‘It would have been nice if …’:
I wish your father could have been there to see it all. (= Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to be there.)
3E. Differences between wish and if only
If only is often more emphatic than wish. Compare these examples:
If only we’d seen you coming. We might have braked in time. (a regret)
I wish we’d seen you coming. We would have put out the red carpet! (a wish)
For greater emphasis we can put a subject between if and only in informal English:
If you only knew how much trouble you’ve caused.
Note: Wish can be followed by that, but if only cannot:
X If only that you’d told me about it earlier.
✓ I wish that you ‘d told me about it earlier.
C PRACTICE EXERCISE
Study the following extracts. Two of them use appropriate language but four of them use forms which have an incorrect degree of formality. Tick (✓) the two correct extracts and rewrite the remaining four using subjunctives (note you may need to use passive forms).
- It is vital that claims are submitted to the committee with full supporting documentation.
- and then, can you imagine, the boss insisted that I took little James to lunch,. I mean, it’s not my job to look after the, boss’s children, is it?
- Clause 25.6 of the Treatment of Offenders Act suggests that each offender receives a monthly visit from a probation officer.
- May the President have a long life!
- 7.30 BBC1. Trudy Trouble. In tonight’s hilarious episode Sam suggests that Trudy visits the doctor, with predictably comical results!
- It is imperative that ear protectors are worn at all times when operating the machine lathes.
Rewrite these sentences using a suitable phrase from the box. Use each phrase only once.
|as if she as though I’d rather it’s time it’s about time you
suppose I I’d sooner they’d rather what if
- Taking the later flight would be preferable for me. ==> I’d sooner take the later flight.
- You look awful. Have you been unwell?
- Please don’t wipe your feet on the carpets.
- What on earth will happen if they don’t accept your explanation?
- We really ought to pay the bill now.
- If I complained to the police, how would they react?
- If they had the choice, I think they’d prefer us to go with them.
- She isn’t a member of the club, but she acts like someone who is.
- You should give your parents a call, they must be getting worried by now.
Read the information in the box then match each statement (1-15) below with one of the speakers Alan (A), Mary (M) or Teresa (T). You can match five statements to each speaker.
|A – Alan loves swimming but he doesn’t have a pool in his house.
M – Mary has a swimming pool in her house.
T – Teresa used to own a house with a swimming pool.
1 I wish we had a house with a pool.
2 Supposing we got rid of the pool?
3 It’s high time we changed the water in the pool.
4 If only the pool hadn’t been so expensive to maintain.
5 Suppose we hadn’t had a pool for all those years?
6 I’d rather we had our own pool.
7 People say I sometimes talk as if I had my own swimming pool
8 What if we’d never had a pool?
9 If only the children would use our pool more often.
10 I wish I could go back to the days when we had our own pool.
11 If only we didn’t have that great big pool in the back garden.
12 I’d sooner we used solar power to heat our pool.
13 I wish we could have used our pool more.
14 It’s about time we built a pool.
15 What if we installed a pool in the basement?
For each of the sentences below, write a new sentence as similar as possible in meaning to the original sentence. Use the words given in bold letters. The words must not be altered in any way. There is an example (0) at the beginning.
- I regret the fact that we didn’t see the band play.
could ………..I wish we could have seen the band play…………….
- It’s a pity that you didn’t tell us that you were leaving.
- What would have happened if they hadn’t got a receipt?
- We really should go now.
- Unfortunately, I’m not as agile as I used to be.
- I’d love to be able to play the piano.
- Her constant criticism of me really gets on my nerves.
- Treat my home in the same way that you would treat your own.
- I regret not going to university when I was younger.
- She would love to have more friends.
- Please don’t let the dog sit in the front of the car.
Some of these sentences contain mistakes. Tick (✓) the correct sentences; then underline and correct the mistakes.
1 I had rather you didn’t take the car; it’s just been cleaned. ,
2 It’s high time our employer listens to our grievances.
3 Supposing I took out my own insurance cover, what did you do about it?
4 If we only knew where he was getting the information from.
5 I wish I would be a child again.
6 He’s only a student but sometimes he acts as if he is the teacher.
7 I’d sooner die than go out with that creep.
8 What if you’ll see him at the party?
9 It’s about time I didn’t stay at home; I am twenty-five after all!
10 What a mess; you look as though you’ve been in a fight!
Complete the letter with appropriate forms of the words in brackets.
Dear Mrs Grenfell,
I am writing to you in your position as secretary of Cliveden Mansions Residents’ Association in connection with the problem of residents leaving bicycles in the common hallway.
My wife and I have yet again been having a lot of trouble with Steve and David Brown, the tenants of flat 16 on the first floor, and we feel it is high time this persistent source of dispute (l) ________ (finally/resolve). These tenants own two bicycles which they insist on leaving in the entrance corridor. No doubt you are aware that the eases of all the flats in our budding require that the entrance (2)__________ ( keep clear) of obstruction at all times. The local fire officer has also pointed out to me that under the building regulations the common entrance corridors to flats must be treated as if they (3) ____________ (be) exits of a public building, and are therefore subject to the same restrictions as those in force in theatres, cinemas, etc. Supposing the corridor (4)__________ (block) with bicycles and there was a serious fire? We might all be trapped in our flats.
Apparently last month you told the Browns that they could keep their bicycles there for a temporary period. Well, I certainly wish you (5)________ (not/agree) to that because they continually use this as an excuse when we ask them to remove the bikes. I have pointed out to them that there is space to store bicycles in the back yard, although I would sooner they (6) ________ (keep) the bikes in their own flat as the presence of two mountain bikes might attract thieves. They say that there isn’t any space in their flat and I wish I (7) _________ (able to) offer them somewhere else. But, as you know, all the space in the bicycle shed is now allocated. Unfortunately they still seem unwilling to move their bikes, and their intransigence is beginning to seem deliberate. It isn’t as though we (8) ___________ (not/tell) them about this on numerous occasions. In fact it has now reached a stage where I feel I must insist that the chairman of the residents’ association (9) __________ (demand) they remove the bicycles forthwith.
We would rather (10) _________ (not/have to/refer) this matter to our solicitors but we feel that if the residents’ association is unable to resolve the matter, we will have no alternative.
Complete the speech bubbles for the pictures, using the expressions described in this unit.
A. __________________something slightly less dangerous!
B. Long __________________________
C. ___________________changed your phone!
D. ___________________ tidy up this room!
E. ___________________ taller!
F. He treats ___________________ it was human!
ANSWER KEY FOR DIAGNOSTIC TEST
- ✓ or: were ==> was)
- would have ==> had
- didn’t act ==> stopped acting
- would have been ==> had been/ could have been
- lives ==> live
- If only I had known (omit that)
- started doing/did your homework.
- had been invited, would you have gone?
- didn’t bring that smelly dog into this house.
- wear natural fabrics.
- he knows what he is talking about.
- would stop talking with your mouth full.
ANSWER KEY FOR PRACTICE EXERCISE
- are submitted ==> be submitted
- receives ==> receive
- May the President have a long life! ==> Long live the President!
- are worn ==> be worn
- You look as though you’ve been unwell.
- I’d rather you didn’t wipe your feet on the carpets.
- What if they don’t accept your explanation?
- It’s time we paid the bill.
- Suppose I complained to the police?
- They’d rather we went with them.
- She acts as if she was/were a member of the club.
- It’s about time you called your parents.
- I wish you’d told us that you were leaving.
- Suppose they hadn’t got a receipt?
- It’s (about) time we went.
- If only I was/were as agile as I used to be.
- I wish/lf only I could play the piano.
- I wish she would stop criticising me.
- Treat my home as though it was/were your own.
- If only/ I wish I had gone to university.
- She wishes she had more friends.
- I’d rather/sooner you didn’t let the dog sit in the front of the car.
- had ==> would
- listens ==>listened
- did ==> would
- would be ==> could be/ were
- he is ==> he was/he were
- you’ll see ==> you see/you saw
- I didn’t stay at home ==> I left home
- was finally resolved
- be kept clear
- was/were blocked
- hadn’t agreed
- was/were able to
- haven’t told
- not have to refer/ we didn’t have to refer
A. I’d rather/sooner do something slightly less dangerous!
B. Long live freedom!
C. It’s (high) time you changed your phone!
D. I wish/ If only you would tidy up this room!
E. I wish/ If only I was/were taller!
F. He treats that dog as if/as though it was human!
Round up: Conditionals, subjunctive and ‘unreal’ past
|-events that occur at any time or more than once
-actions that always have the same result
|If she’s travelling abroad on business, she always phones me every evening.
If you don’t look after tomato plants, they die very quickly
If a chip pan sets alight, throw a fire blanket on it.
|-possible future events or situations and their results
-commands, offers, suggestions and warnings
|If the result of the test is negative, you ’ll receive notification through the post.
The beach party will go ahead if the weather is fine tomorrow.
Shall we go out tomorrow if the weather’s good?
|-improbable future events or situations and their results
-hypothetical current situations or events (a condition which is impossible to fulfil)
-advice, requests, desires
|If the result of the test were positive, we would call you within two days.
If the police were confident of their case against Sykes, they wouldn’t hesitate to take him into custody.
If I were you, I would take her out of that school
|-hypothetical situations or events in the past (an unreal past situation
|I would have used your builder if 1 had managed to contact him.
If you’d been driving more slowly, you could have stopped in time.
|hypothetical situations or events in the present with a result in the past
|If the island were still a tourist attraction, last week’s earthquake would have caused far more deaths.|
|hypothetical situations or events in the past with a result in the present||If Fleming hadn’t discovered penicillin, there events in the past with a would be far more fatalities every year than there actually are.|
|the same as
|used in formal English to express the idea something is necessary or important
|At yesterday’s hearing the judge insisted that Mr Grant give evidence despite his relationship to the accused.|
|it’s (high/about) time||to say that something is not happening and it should be||It’s time we left.|
|what if, suppose/ supposing||to ask questions about an imaginary situation and its possible consequences||Suppose 1 asked you to marry me. What would you say?|
|would rather/would sooner||To describe preferences (often a polite way to give/ refuse permission, or make suggestions)||I’d sooner you gave me a refund. A credit note’s no use to me.
I’d rather you didn’t smoke in here.
|as if/as though||to say that how something appears does not match with reality
(For as if/as though with present tenses 2F)
|He talks to the children as though they were
(He sounds as if he knows what he’s talking
|wish/if only + past simple||desire for something to be different in the present||I wish I had more free time.
If only I were young again.
|wish /if only + past perfect||a regret about the past, a wish that something
different had happened
|I wish that you’d told me about this before I booked the tickets.
If only you hadn’t been driving so fast!
|wish/if only + would||desire for someone to
change their deliberate
behaviour in the resent
and future (often used to criticise or complain)
|I wish you’d stop looking at me like that. It’s terribly distracting.
I wish you’d stop shouting. I’m not deaf you know.
|wish/if only + could (have)||desire which we know is impossible to achieve (including impossible desires
|If only we could see the situation through his eyes.
I wish 1 could dance but I’m afraid I’ve got two
Main IELTS Pages:
This website is to develop your IELTS skills with tips, model answers, lessons, free books, and more. Each section (Listening, Speaking, Writing, Reading) has a complete collection of lessons to help you improve your IELTS skills.
Subscribe for free IELTS lessons/Books/Tips/Sample Answers/Advice from our IELTS experts. We help millions of IELTS learners maximize their IELTS scores!
Latest posts by IELTS Editor (see all)
- Improve Your Vocabulary in IELTS Speaking & Writing – Key Word: Thing - April 1, 2018
- Boost Your Lexical Resource – Key Word: Rule - March 26, 2018
- Using Collocation to Boost Your IELTS Score – Key Word: promise - November 20, 2017