Chances are, you’re familiar with one difference between was and were: the fact that was is the first- and third-person singular past tense form of the verb to be, while were is the second-person singular past and the plural past form of to be. But what about when you’re talking about hypotheticals—for instance, in a sentence like “If I was/were a dog . . .”? What’s the right choice?
In these cases, the key to understanding when to use was or were in a sentence is determining whether you need to use the subjunctive mood. A verb in the subjunctive mood expresses an action or state that is not reality. For example, it might be hypothetical, wished for, or conditional.
Was and were as past tense and subjunctive mood verb forms
To better see what we are up against when deciding when to use was and when to use were, let’s compare the past tense and subjunctive mood conjugations of to be side by side.
Past tense of “to be”
|I was||you were||he was||she was||it was||we were||you were||they were|
Subjunctive of “to be”
|I were||you were||he were||she were||it were||we were||you were||they were|
Our table reveals something delightful: Whether you’re trying to use the simple past or the subjunctive, you can’t go wrong when choosing were with the second person singular (you), the third person generic singular (they), the first person plural (we), the second person plural (you), or the third person plural (they). We need to choose between was and were only for the first person singular (I) and the rest of the third person singular pronouns (he, she, and it). Isn’t that great news?
Is it “if I was” or “if I were”?
Use were if the state of being you are describing is contrary to the current reality. This is true whenever a hypothetical situation is expressed, for example.
The first sentence can be described as an unreal conditional sentence. These hypotheticals are easy to spot because they are often introduced by an if and are related to another clause containing a would or could.
Another type of unreal conditional sentence that uses the same construction demanding the subjunctive were is the impossible or improbable type.
Here the speaker implies that the puzzle is unsolvable. Therefore, solving the puzzle is not a likely reality, and the subjunctive were is used instead of the past tense was.
That does not mean that every clause beginning with if requires the use of were rather than was.
In this sentence, the speaker acknowledges that it is possible they were mistaken about Felicity loving puppies and thus shouldn’t be giving her one. The fact that the speaker is describing what may be reality makes this an indicative sentence, not a subjunctive one. Therefore, we use was instead of were.
Use were, not was, for wishful thinking
A sure sign that you should use the subjunctive is when the word wish is used. A wish is the desire or hope for something that cannot or probably will not happen.
Remember this rule about the usage of was and were: Use were with expressions that are hypothetical, wishful, imagined, desired, doubtful, and otherwise contrary to fact—that is to say, not real.