#amwriting: Verbs: when to use “if I was” and “if I were”

epiphanyMost of my ideas for blog posts arise during work, or in conversation with other writers. Usually, these revolve around concepts I have a basic understanding of but haven’t really given a lot of thought to. Writing about them helps to clarify and cement them in my mind.

Every now and then a grammar topic comes up that I’ve never really thought about. If it’s a subject I am not really clear on, I will research it, and then try to distill my discoveries into bite sized chunks.

We writers often operate by instinctively using the knowledge we gained in school. Often, as in my case, that knowledge is a bit tarnished and worse for the wear.  Today’s topic is one fabulous instance of that very thing.

Last Tuesday, we were standing around the virtual watercooler at the virtual offices of Myrddin Publishing. We have authors and editors on three continents, so we use a virtual office. A grammar question arose, and this is how the conversation went:

Shaun Allan (UK) said: Grammar question, please. ‘As if it were’ or ‘as if it was’ ?

Ross Kitson (UK) said: Would it depend upon the subject of it? If it were an individual then I’d say “was” whereas if ‘it’ were an event then I’d say ‘were.’ Might be best to ask a non-Northerner.

Connie Jasperson (me) (US) said: Ross Kitson is correct (in my opinion).

Stephen Swartz (US) said: were.

Gary Hoover  (US) said: A HUGE issue with most people is the subjunctive tense. Anything that is not actual but could be is subjunctive (as your phrase indicates). “If I were a carpenter.” Is correct because the singer isn’t actually a carpenter. “I was a carpenter” is correct if he actually was. (Gary inserted the link to Wikipedia’s article on “English Subjunctive”)

Alison DeLuca (US) said: I’m a subjunctive slore! ‘Were’ all the way.

It turns out this conversation revolved around the “Past Subjunctive Tense.” Gary, Stephen, and Alison had it right.

As a result of this conversation, I did a little more digging, wanting to know more about this oddly named construct. It just so happens that on Saturday morning, Stephen Swartz and I both happened (at the same time) upon an excellent blog post by the Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty.

When you go out to Wikipedia the whole subjunctive verb thing looks quite complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. For the purposes of this post, we are only looking at Past Subjunctive definitionSubjunctives: the verbs was and were.

But first, what does “subjunctive” mean?:

Dictionary.com defines “Subjunctive.” as:


1.(in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions, as the mood of ‘be’ in ‘if this be treason.’

Compare imperative (def 3), indicative (def 2).


2.the subjunctive mood or mode.

3.a verb in the subjunctive mood or form.

First, let’s consider what Past Subjunctive Tense covers: how to use the words ‘was’ and ‘were.’

Which is correct?

  • I wish I were a penguin. I would fly through the water.
  • I wish I was a penguin. I would fly through the water.

If I am only  only wishing I were a penguin, were is correct. If I actually could be a penguin, was would be correct and I would have to rewrite my sentence, by deleting ‘I wish’ and changing ‘would’ to ‘could.’

The Grammar Girl goes farther. She says: Believe it or not, verbs have moods just like you do. Yes, before the Internet and before emoticons, somebody already thought it was important to communicate moods. So, like many other languages, English has verbs with moods ranging from commanding to questioning and beyond. The mood of the verb “to be” when you use the phrase “I were” is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it for times when you’re talking about something that isn’t true or you’re being wishful.

I love that clue—that verbs can be wishful.

fiddler onthe roof soundtrackThe Grammar Girl gives us a great example: Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He’s not rich, he’s just imagining, so “If I were” is the correct statement. This time you’ve got a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word “if.”

However, there are times when we use the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened, or may not happen at all. Grammar Girl says:  But “if” and “could” and similar words don’t always mean you need to use “I were.” For example, when you are supposing about something that might be true, you use the verb “was.”

Past subjunctive verb forms express a hypothetical condition in present, past, or future time:

  • Don’t complain about the food. What if I was a chef?
  • I wish I were reincarnated. What if I was a penguin?

If it’s only wishful thinking, we use “were.” If it might be true but we don’t know or it hasn’t happened, we use “was.”

So now, thanks to a bunch of editors hanging around the water cooler and the miracle of the internet, we know how and when to use our moody, past subjunctive verbs.

If you are a grammar junkie (as I am becoming) I highly recommend you check out Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl blog, or pick up her books.


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4 responses to “#amwriting: Verbs: when to use “if I was” and “if I were”

  1. Stephen Swartz

    If I were to write a post like this, I wouldn’t change a word!


  2. This is exactly why I gave up trying to break down sentences in English class. As soon as I think I understand something, the definition continues and throws me out of whack again.
    I have been led to believe that any use of “was” is to be considered passive, and therefore not recommended for (at the very least) fiction or basic story-telling. There are, however, times when it cannot be steered away from without changing the entire meaning of what one is trying to express. It’s also acceptable in character voice.

    So, yes, I agree that “was” should be avoided whenever possible.
    Thanks for bringing this sticky subject to light!


    • @VelahAuthor — we certainly want to avoid passive phrasing if we are writing in an active voice. I agree that trimming wordiness and avoiding “it was” and “to be” when showing a scene helps a great deal.

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