The subject of the subjunctive came up in a recent email discussion. English does have a subjunctive – or, I should say, some versions of English do have a distinct subjunctive. Some people will say “If I was you,” meaning right now, and they’re not using a special subjunctive form. But others (me included) will say “If I were you,” because I couldn’t possibly actually be you, and they are using a special subjunctive form. And I will be addressing the kind of English that does use these forms.
There are actually a variety of places where the subjunctive gets used in English, although rather fewer than there used to be, and I’m not going to go into detail about all of them, but they all involve a posited alternate reality – one that is desired (as in “I ask that he come to see me”) or merely posited as possible (“If music be the food of love, play on”), or one that is definitely expressed as other than the current state (“If I were a rich man…”).
The discussion began with the sentence “He felt as if he were at a crossroads.” And the question: The character is indeed at a crossroads, so should it be “was”?The answer to that one: If he was considering the real possibility that he at the time was at a crossroads – “He felt that he might be at a crossroads” – then it’s “was”. If he was simply likening his state to being at a crossroads, without considering it a real possibility then and there (whether or not it actually was a real possibility – in this case it’s his feeling that counts), then it’s “were.”
Now, in a case such as “as if the tree was weeping,” trees can’t weep, unless you wish to attribute weeping to trees in some metaphorical way (but that’s something best established as a “real-world” possibility before jamming it into this kind of context), so it should be “as if the tree were weeping.”
If we have a phrase such as “It seemed as if the opposite was happening,” , we could use it in a context where we can consider that the opposite may in fact have actually been happening: “I had been assured that I would become rich. But it certainly seemed as if the opposite was happening.” (It was looking like he was getting poorer.)
But in a case where the opposite was established as not happening or simply couldn’t happen, we’d have to use “were”: “It was obvious that I was becoming rich. But on some days it certainly seemed as if the opposite were happening.” “Of course when I let the ball go it fell towards the ground. But it certainly seemed as if the opposite were happening.”
In short, you use the subjunctive when you’re talking about a postulated world not considered as part of the real world in which the sentence’s actors are situated. You use the indicative (“I was”) when you’re talking about a real-world possibility.
I remember someone in a copyediting class I took at Ryerson getting this one confused. She said that I, in the classroom at Ryerson, should say “If I was in the Eaton Centre now,” because I could be in the Eaton Centre. But actually it was established that I was not in the Eaton Centre, as I was there in the classroom talking to her. If she had said, “I saw you yesterday afternoon in the Eaton Centre,” I could have replied “If I was in the Eaton Centre, how did my co-workers talk to me at the office?” But as long as I’m using the version of English that uses separate subjunctive forms, I can’t use “If I was” in the present, just in the past, and only when considering real-world possibilities in the past. I can’t say “If I was in the Eaton Centre now”; it has to be “If I were in the Eaton Centre now” if I’m not there, and “If I am in the Eaton Centre now” if we’re considering the possibility that I actually am there.
And that’s the big key, by the way: not whether the state of affairs actually could be so, but whether the actor in the the mental act introducing the clause is considering that it actually could be so (if no actor is specified, then the author and reader are the actor). So a delusionary person could “feel as if he was being eaten by a unicorn” if carnivorous unicorns were real possibilities in his world, and anyone can “feel as if he were breathing” if it’s established that he is/was not breathing.
So Tevye sings “If I were a rich man…” because he’s not. If he sang (note I’m using a form resembling the indicative past here; I could also use “were to sing”) “If I was a rich man,” the next words would not be “all day long I’d yidda biddy bum,” they would be something like “how did I get to be such an old bum?”