English verbs can exhibit a feature called mood. Moods have to do with the the reality of what you’re speaking (or writing) about. That might not be a very useful definition, but you no doubt recognize the names of the moods from grade school. You use the indicative when you’re asserting something to be true. You use the interrogative to ask a question. The imperative is for when you give a command. And the subjunctive is for when something is not real. In English, most verbs don’t have a separate form for the subjunctive; you have to figure it out from the context.
However, the verb to be does have a subjunctive form. It’s were. Now that looks like the past tense form, so you still need some context. The context you need is some way to say that the situation is not real. For example, if you were to start a sentence with If, you should use the subjunctive.
If I were in better shape, I could swim farther. But I’m not, so I can’t.
The normal past tense (indicative) is I was. I need the subjunctive because I’m not actually in good enough shape. Could, by the way, is a modal auxiliary, and I don’t want to get into those in this post, but note that you have to write could instead of can because you’re using the subjunctive. This is intuitive for native speakers of English. People generally get the could-can dichotomy right, but people fairly commonly get the main verb wrong, saying “If I was in better shape..”
Another contextual indication of the subjunctive is to express a wish, and that leads us to today’s comic grammar lesson, and a reminder that we parents should always tell our kids the truth, from Zach Weiner’s excellent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:
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This chart explains the reasoning behind the shapes of the numerals we use. Back in the late 1100’s a guy name of Fibonacci came back from a trip overseas with some new writing tools—for numbers. Until his day roman numerals were the way people wrote numbers. Fibonacci was a mathematician, and he figured out (or was shown) that the Hindu place-value system made calculating a LOT easier. I don’t know why we call them Arabic numerals, because he traveled past Arabia and got the info farther to the east. By the way, the very first example we have of these numerals being used in Europe, if I recall, was on a sign at a coal mine, and it predates Fibonacci. But who reads coal mines? Anyway, Fibonacci gets the credit, and he worked hard to popularize his method, so he deserves it, I think, and some anonymous coal miner gets a nice footnote.