Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language. This week it’s was vs were…
Q: Hi AWC, I have a question for you. if I were to say, um, I mean, if I was to say – oh wait. Okay, new question. Is it “I WERE” or “I WAS”?
A: That’s a good question, and luckily for you the rule here is fairly clear. Well, as clear as the English language will permit.
Q: So “Beijing air quality” clear then?
A: Something like that. First things first – both “was” and “were” are past tense forms of the verb “to be” – itself an irregular verb, but a very common one.
Q: As common as skinny jeans on a bearded man in his early 20s?
A: No no, nothing is that common. But still fairly common. The easiest rule is that “was” will team up with the first person singular “I” (“I was at the dentist at 2.30”), as well as the third person singular “he”, “she” and “it” (“It was a sunny day and she was mowing the lawn while he was baking cookies”).
Q: The smell of freshly cut grass AND cookies? Wow. Are they trying to sell their house?
A: No idea, we just made them up. Anyway, “was” exists in those forms and generally is like a news channel – reporting the facts.
Q: What is this mythical news channel of which you speak?
A: Haha, true. Okay, so “were” turns up with second person forms like “you”, “your” and “yours” (“You were my Secret Santa!”). It also enjoys the occasional romp with first and third person plurals “we” and “they”. (“We were admiring the neighbours’ lawn and they were eating cookies”).
Q: So my example from earlier (“if I were” vs “if I was”) – does that mean I should use “was”?
A: This is where it gets interesting.
Q: Maybe consider leading with that in future then? Just sayin’…
A: We’ve stumbled upon the subjunctive mood.
Q: Oh, I think my doctor gave me some eye drops for that.
A: No, a subjunctive mood is basically “wishful thinking”. The song “If I were a rich man” is a classic example. It’s all about things that aren’t factual; hypothetical things like wishes, regrets, hopes, possibilities and dreams that may or may not happen in the future. We normally think of “were” as past tense, but when it’s in a subjunctive mood, it’s back to the future.
Q: So not only is “were” the past tense of “to be”, but it’s also…
A: …the future subjunctive – yep, some crazy Marty McFly nonsense right there.
Q: So my example should be “if I WERE to say”?
Q: Other examples?
A: “If it were possible, I would fly instead of drive to work.”
A: “I wish it were Friday already.”
A: “If I were better at grammar, I wouldn’t ask so many questions”.
Q: Well played.
A: But seriously, if it were up to us, we’d keep going all day…
Q: Thanks. It’s a cool little rule to remember. Or I could just get myself a subjunctive mood ring. Apparently it glows blue when you should use “were”.
A: That’s not a thing.
Q: If you’re so sure it’s not a thing, why are logging onto Etsy right now to check?
A: Okay, we’re done here.