"He is afraid of flying. When he flies tomorrow, he should pretend he was on a bus instead of an airplane."

I uttered the above statement in a recent conversation. Of course, I could replace the "was" with "is", but the "was" still sounds reasonably natural. Neither "should pretend he is" nor "should pretend he was" appear in the CoCA corpus, but "should pretend he was" yields about half as many google hits as "should pretend he is", suggesting that it is a reasonably common variant.

So, what are the grammatical properties of "was"? It's not bastardized subjunctive: "he should pretend he were" sounds horrible. It doesn't seem to be conditional either. And it certainly doesn't seem to be past tense. So what role is it performing, and why does it sound OK (even if not ideal) to native ears?

Many thanks.

  • 1
    Related: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/6982/…
    – TKR
    Feb 25, 2017 at 0:22
  • Tensed clauses are not really prepared for counterfactuals; the normal way to say it is tenselessly, with an infinitive: he should pretend to be on a bus instead of an airplane.
    – jlawler
    Feb 25, 2017 at 16:52
  • 1
    Why the closing votes? This strikes me as a perfectly cogent and interesting question.
    – TKR
    Feb 25, 2017 at 18:17

4 Answers 4


This seems to be an extension of the so-called modal preterite (CGEL's term -- see StoneyB's comment on Pascal-Denis Lussier's answer), in which English constructions with irrealis semantics can take formally past-tense verbs even though there is no actual past-tense reference.


  • I wish I was on a bus right now!
  • It's time you came home.
  • I'd rather you were here. (some dialects)
  • I'd like to be able to say that he wrote brilliant poetry, but he doesn't.
  • If only we were there with you!

As the last example shows, this may be a related phenomenon to the use of past-tense forms in the protases of unreal conditionals: If I was rich, I'd buy a house.

Though pretend is not normally used with this construction, its irrealis semantics apparently license it for some speakers, including you -- a straightforward enough extension. (The exact set of circumstances under which modal preterites may be used in English is not clear to me, hence this previous question, which also asked why this conflation of past tense and irrealis exists in the first place.)


I will dub this very interesting construction "indirect mental discourse", since it seems similar to ordinary indirect discourse with verbs like "say". Indirect discourse allows a direct quote to be converted to a "that"-clause which characterizes indirectly what was said, rather than giving the exact words (which may not be known to the reporter). In converting from a direct quote, the tense of the indirect report may be changed to one which is relative to the time of the report.

He says "I am on a bus."  
==> He says that he is on a bus.

He said "I am on a bus."  
==> He said that he was on a bus.

He will say "I am on a bus."  
==> He will say that he was/is on a bus.

For the last example above, the present tense of the direct quote precedes the future tense of the quotation verb, so this licenses "was" in the indirect quote.

In the example of the question, the construction is similar, but it is harder to recognize because (1) the speech is mental rather than aloud,

He will think "I am on a bus."  
==> He will think that he was/is on a bus.

and (2), "pretend" with a direct quote is marginally grammatical, at best.

*He will pretend "I am on a bus."  
==> He will pretend that he was/is on a bus.
  • I don't understand this part: In converting from a direct quote, the tense of the indirect report may be changed to one which is relative to the time of the report ... For the last example above, the present tense of the direct quote precedes the future tense of the quotation verb, so this licenses "was" in the indirect quote. The time of the quoted verb is contemporaneous with that of the quoting verb, and both are in the future relative to the time of utterance, so what would license a past tense here?
    – TKR
    Feb 25, 2017 at 18:16
  • Assume that "should" is formally a past form. The story might go through if based on formal properties rather than time-reference. I reject the example as utterly ungrammatical, but I also reject "could of" which is well-documented. I don't see how we can go any further than speculating, without a more robust corpus.
    – user6726
    Feb 25, 2017 at 18:31
  • @user6726, the examples in this question seem to be of the same kind -- if so, it would be better to find a unified account. (Personally the example is not one I would produce, but it doesn't strike me as ungrammatical either.)
    – TKR
    Feb 25, 2017 at 18:45
  • 1
    As another note, converting He will say "I am on a bus" into He will say that he was on a bus (the third example in the answer) seems impossible to me; in the OP's example, was seems to be licensed (somehow) by the irrealis semantics, but that's not the case here.
    – TKR
    Feb 25, 2017 at 18:47
  • 1
    @GregLee, I mean with reference to a theory of formal (inflectional) features, thus not appealing to semantics. And if that was not what you havd in mind, then I can't interpret your answer.
    – user6726
    Feb 25, 2017 at 20:19

This seems related to so-called "sequence of tense" phenomena, which are interesting and maybe hard to analyze.

Norbert Hornstein wrote an interesting little monograph a while ago about time, tense, and syntax. It's couched within a Chomskyan (GB) approach, but leverages ideas from Reichenbach's approach:


and there's enough theory-neutral substance for it to be of value.


To pretend is to represent an assertion as true; the assertion itself is cast in the indicative.

He pretends that he is on a bus.

But the tense—temporal reference—of the assertion is independent of the tense of pretend, for you may assert a past, present or future fact; and the form/construction of the verb employed in the assertion reflects the interaction of the tense of the assertion with the Reference Time of the pretense.

What you want here is almost certainly:

He should pretend (in the future when he is flying) that he is on a bus (at that time).

I'd bet that most of your hits on He should pretend he was ... reflect a situation analogous to

He should pretend (in the future) that he was on a bus (at the prior time when the prosecution allege that he was flying).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.