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
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.
I wish I were going to the ball [he’s not] instead of
If I were there [he’s not], I’d dance every dance.
Is that better? Remember, if it were simple, it wouldn’t be
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