doubts on second conditional part 2

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The best examples I got on how native speaker use subjunctive are the ones from movies “Saving Private Ryan” and “Good Will Hunting”, where the actors change the subjunctive tenses to present tense. Which sounds perfectly natural to me and their thoughts are like water flowing through a smooth river, without obstacles.

[from Saving Private Ryan]
Edward Burns as Reiben:
let's say you weren't a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?

Tom Hanks as Captain:
Well, in that case, I'd say this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover... I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men, especially you, Reiben, to ease her suffering.

The assumptions made by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting is even better, completely ignore the past tense rule when making second conditional statements.

[From Good Will Hunting]
Matt Damon as Will Hunting
Why shouldn't|I work for the N.S.A.? That's a tough one, but I'll take a shot. Say I'm workin' at the N.S.A. and somebody puts a code on my desk. Something no one else|can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. I'm real happy with myself because I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels are hidin'. Fifteen hundred people that I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are saying, "Send in the Marines to secure the area," 'cause they don't give a shit.
It won't be their kid over there gettin' shot, just like it wasn't them when their number got called 'cause they were in the National Guard. It'll be some kid from Southie over there takin' shrapnel in the ass. He comes back to find the plant|he used to work at...
got exported to the country he got back from, and the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job...'cause he'll work for 15 cents a day and no bathroom breaks.
Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place... was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. Of course, the oil companies used a skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain't helpin' my buddy at 2.50 a gallon. They're takin' their sweet time bringin' the oil, of course. Maybe they even took the liberty to hire an alcoholic skipper, who likes to drink martinis and fuckin' play slalom with the icebergs.
It ain't too long till he hits one, spills the oil... and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy's out of work, he can't afford to drive, so he's walkin' to the fuckin' job interviews... which sucks because the shrapnel in his ass is givin' him chronic hemorrhoids. Meanwhile, he's starvin', 'cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they're servin'... is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I'm holdin' out for somethin' better. I figure, fuck it. While I'm at it, why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy,
hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I can be elected president.

I have to apologize for the profanities that appear in Will Hunting’s speech, somehow I just can’t find another more thorough representation of speech for my problem. Just imagine the tenses used by Will Hunting all be changed to past tense to follow the so called second conditional rule, I really doubt that even the natives would speak or think as fluently as they do in present tense. To me, my brain would explode it somebody asks me to speak aloud Will Hunting’s hypothesis in past tense. I think most English grammar books oversimplified the rule of second conditional. And that is why many none native speakers can never speak as fluently as native English speaker because non natives think about the tenses first before they speak, contrary the natives speak first before they think. If someone asks me to make a long hypothetical assumption, the only answer I would give them is my ugly face and my jaws wide open sounding the world “urghhhhhhh……..”, which is exactly what Homer Simpson would do if being asked about the question he doesn’t understand.

To summarize my questions,
a) Can present tense ever be used in subjunctive when describing current action or situation? If they can, could you guys please draw me a clear line under what situation present tense can be used?
b) In daily speaking or so called informal speech, do the native actually use past tense for long hypothetical cases they come across? I really have problem of making long hypothesis in daily speech, especially when I think in English. Do the native actually think in the following way?
“If I were his father, I would straight him up, I am not going to let him waste his time like that….(present tense all along)”.
“If I were the president of united states, I would reduce the taxes, most people already think that the president is crook and I am not going to let my people down simply with the notion of filling my own pocket on the job. I am…(present tense).

Sorry for the bad preposition usage I have in this question, I am still working on it.


Senior Member
May 27, 2007
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Interesting question.;-)
(Not a teacher)
I think the present tense holds water in a subjunctive if the fact is still true.
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Senior Member
Jan 16, 2009
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You seem essentially to be asking to what extent tense concord rules apply to relative clauses within counterfactual conditional sentences.

The answer, in a nutshell, is that, where the clause refers to something real, an appropriate tense of the indicative will be used, but where it refers to something merely notional (i.e. whose existence is dependent on acceptance of the truth of the hypothetical assertion), then the past tense is normal.

To illustrate, compare

If I were the ruler of this entire kingdom, which stretches as far as the human eye can see,...

(the kingdom itself is real, hence 'see' and 'can')


If I were the ruler of a kingdom that stretched as far as the human eye could see,...

(the kingdom is simply imaginary, hence 'stretched' and 'could')

I hope these few simple notes go at least some way toward answering your query!
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