Episode 160: March 5, 2009
by Mignon Fogarty
[Note: I originally covered this topic September 16, 2006. The transcript you see now on the page is a new version that was updated March 5, 2009. Some of the reader comments at the bottom relate to the earlier version.]
Today's topic is the past subjunctive, or in terms you might recognize, when to use "I was" and when to use "I were."
Was Versus Were
Carrie from New Orleans asked me to help her understand whether she should say "I wish I were more perceptive" or "I wish I was more perceptive." It's a great question because it's something that a lot of people don't know.
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.
When to Use Were
Carrie's example is an easy one to start with because her sentence starts with words "I wish"--I wish I were more perceptive--and that's about the biggest clue you can get that her sentence is wishful. Wishful sentences call for the subjunctive mood of the verb "to be," so the right choice is "I were": I wish I were more perceptive.
Here's another example to help you remember. 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." Although it's not always the case, sentences that start with "if" are often also wishful or contrary to fact. Here are some examples:
If I were in charge, I would declare every Friday a holiday.
If he were nicer, I wouldn't hate him so much.
If the ladder were taller, we could reach the cat.
All those sentences use the verb "were" because they aren't true. I was just talking about things I wish would happen or talking about what would happen if things were different from what they actually are. I can't declare every Friday a holiday, he will never be nicer, and the ladder will never be taller. Also notice how in each of those sentences, the part that follows the subjunctive verb contains a word such as "would" or "could." I would declare a holiday. We could reach the cat. Those wishful words are also a clue that you might need the subjunctive mood.
When to Use Was
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 use the verb "was." Here's an example:
There was a storm in Mexico. If Richard was in Cabo, he could have missed the call.
Did you hear how that sentence used "if" and "could," but I was talking about something I think was likely to have happened? Because there was a storm, and Richard was in the area, he may have missed the call. The possibility that it happened is what makes this sentence need the indicative mood and not the subjunctive mood. It's why I say "If Richard was" instead of "If Richard were": If Richard was in Cabo, he could have missed the call.
Here's another one:
If Bill was to come over for coffee (as he does every Sunday), we would talk about football.
Again, the reason that is not in the subjunctive mood and I don't say "If Bill were to come over" is that it's not contrary to fact, presupposed to be false, or wishful. It's likely to happen. It's an indicative statement about what will happen if Bill comes over.
Pay Attention to Context to Know How to Use Was and Were
In cases like that it does depend on the context though. I was careful to make the point that Bill comes over every Sunday, so you'd know it's likely he'll be coming over again. If Bill were dead and I was just reminiscing about what it would be like if he were alive, then the same sentence would call for the subjunctive mood. Here are the two options:
If Bill was to come over for coffee, we'd talk about football.
I use "If Bill was" because he comes over every Sunday, so it's probably going to happen again in the future.
If Bill were to come over for coffee, we'd talk about football.
I use "If Bill were" because Bill is dead, and it's not going to happen.
I've included some resource links below for people who want to do more reading about the subjunctive because I know it's a complex topic, and it can help to have more examples.
Thanks again to Carrie for the question. If you have a question you can post it on Facebook or twitter, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mignon Fogarty is the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
References and Additional Reading