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In English and Spanish (and likely other languages), the past subjunctive is used with conditional clauses:

It would be better if we went to the beach.
Sería mejor si fuéramos a la playa.

Here, the bolded verbs are in the past tense and subjunctive mood (although the latter is indistinguishable from the indicative in the English example).

Why is this the case? It would seem more logical that present tense were used because these statements are frequently generalizations or present truths ("should we X?" "it would be better if we ..."), for which the languages in question use present tense.

I'm just curious as to how this usage developed and why the past tense came into use here.

  • Related: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/6982/… – TKR Apr 21 '17 at 4:08
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    In English, the "tenses" of the subjunctive have no particular connection in meaning with present and past time, sometimes they are called simply Subjunctive I and Subjunctive II. This article explains almost everything, English subjunctive. – Yellow Sky Apr 21 '17 at 4:11
  • it depends on what you mean. "it would be better if we went to the beach" supports many different meaning. – mobileink Apr 21 '17 at 22:44
  • i don't think "went" is past tense in your example. compare "were we to go to the beach", "if we were to go to the beach", "if we went to the beach tomorrow". better to think of "went" in terms of perfective aspect rather than past tense, like "if it were the case that 'we went' is true".. that's how Arabic does it. – mobileink Apr 22 '17 at 17:33
  • 'Went' and 'were' are both past tense ('went' is a lexical verb, and 'were' is an auxiliary [were to go]). Subjunctive worlds cannot be reached from our present world. You would have to go back in time and choose another path to reach that condition. – amI Apr 25 '17 at 20:46

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