Were You or Was You?

by Cherie Tucker

There has been a request to solve the mystery of when to use were versus was, so here goes.  If you have a sentence that expresses a wish or begins with if and is talking about something contrary to facts, you need to use something called the subjunctive while choosing your verbs.  (Don’t stop reading.)  

You use were and not was when the sentence is about wishing for something that is not actual or describing something with an if clause that defies physics or is at least not probable.

For example, if you wished that somehow you could be magically changed into the person who won this week’s huge Lotto jackpot, you would say, “I wish I were the person who won that million!”  While it could happen that sometime you might actually win a jackpot, you will never physically become the person who won this one.  It’s impossible.  The use of were instead of was indicates that not only do you know the difference but that you learned something in school.  

The same rule applies when you say, “If I were you . . . .”  You will never be transformed into someone else.  The if construction indicates that you know that as well.

To review:
I wish I were going to the ball [he’s not] instead of working. 
If I were there [he’s not], I’d dance every dance.

Is that better?  Remember, if it were simple, it wouldn’t be English.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.  GrammarWorks@msn.com

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