“Was” or “Were” in the “If” Clause/Conditional

If you find yourself debating whether to use “was” or “were” in a sentence, it’s likely that you’re dealing with an unreal conditional sentence. As a refresher, an unreal conditional sentence expresses events that are hypothetical or improbable.

Typically, an unreal conditional sentence begins with an if clause containing the past tense or past perfect tense of a verb followed by a conditional clause containing a modal verb such as “would.” Consider the following sentences:

If I had told you the answer, I would have been cheating. If I had run the race, I would feel accomplished.

In both sentences above, the “if” clause contains a form of the past tense of the verb. There is one exception to this rule, however. If the verb in the if clause is “to be,” use “were,” even if the subject of the clause is a third person singular subject (i.e., he, she, it). See the examples below for an illustration of this exception:

If I was a rich man, I would make more charitable donations.
If I were a rich man, I would make more charitable donations.

If he was here right now, he would help us.
If he were here right now, he would help us.

Remember, though, that this exception applies only to unreal conditionals—that is, situations that do not reflect reality. (Hint: unreal conditionals often contain words like “would” or “ought to.”) When you’re talking about a possibility that did happen or might be true, use “was” and “were” as you normally would.

If I were rude to you, I apologize.
If I was rude to you, I apologize.

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Comments
  • Aga Majid

    My headmaster in an Overseas Diocese British High School, an Oxford University English Graduate, had one pet peeve. He used to say that the most misused word in English Language is “Unique.” It means only one of its kind in the world. It cannot be used as “Very Unique,”More Unique,” or “Too Unique.” I see ‘Unique,’ being misused most frequently. I dedicate this to Mr.Godfrey Stott,”May he Rest in Peace.”

    • Rahbmac

      Agree. He was lucky to have only ONE pet peeve!

  • Rahbmac

    I was taught that the subjunctive mood should be used when discussing a “wish, doubt, or supposition”. That is, something not currently true or real. I fervently wish that more people would use it, because sentences like “I wish it was sunny” mean that you wanted it to be sunny sometime in the past. That is both confusing and ungrammatical. “I wish it were sunny” (ie now) or “I wish it had been sunny last week when …” are better grammatically and also much less confusing.

  • Pat

    If I had known that my first car was/were going to be a Fiat I would have been sad

    Since this indicates a scenario that has played out in life i.e. it is real – is the convention then, WAS and not WERE?

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