“If I were you” and other subjunctive stumpers

I promise this golden toilet will help you learn subjunctive. Image courtesy of toiletguppies.blogspot.com

Lesson: using were in the past subjunctive mood

Subjunctive is difficult even for most native English speakers, mainly because it’s not a tense; it’s a mood. Past, present, future—those are tenses. We use them to tell what happened at a certain point in time. Moods, however, tell how a speaker feels about those events.

Have you ever heard a sentence starting with “If I were you”? That’s subjunctive (past subjunctive, to be exact). And past subjunctive with the word were is what we are going to talk about today.

When to use subjunctive
Before you learn how to use it correctly, you have to know when to use it.
You would use subjunctive when you want to express wishes or desires.

Example: I wish you were here.

You would also use subjunctive to express that conditions are false or unlikely.

Example: If I were rich, I would buy a golden toilet.

Was = a common mistake
Because subjunctive is so confusing, it’s common to hear people say was when they should say were.

Have you heard sentences like this before:

It would be nice if she was on vacation.
If I was her, I would dump that loser.
If he was president, he would order Ice Cream Fridays.

In each of these sentences, was should be were. The first sentence expresses a desire (“It would be nice . . .”), and the second and third sentences express false or unlikely conditions. I can’t be her, so that is a false condition. Also he is unlikely to be president, so that is an unlikely condition.

Key words and phrases
One way to figure out if you should use were instead of was is to listen for key words and phrases. Here are some giveaways that you should use subjunctive and were:

I wish that . . .
It would be nice if . . .
I would like it if . . .
It would be wonderful if . . .
It would be super amazing and totally awesome if . . .

As you can see, the above phrases all express wishes and desires. That’s a big clue that you’re dealing with subjunctive.

Another clue is if there is an if/then construction:

If I were you, then I would eat a million donuts.
If I were her, then I would ride a tricycle.
If I were him, then I would be the best drag queen.

But—there won’t always be a then with this construction. Sometimes, it is just implied, as with this example:

If I were a cat, I would step on my owner’s keyboard to piss her off while she’s trying to work.

You can note, though, that the construction is essentially the same.

Remember . . . if you are expressing wishes or desires or conditions that are false or unlikely, use were instead of was.

Quiz
This quiz mixes up past tense (was) with subjunctive (were). Use the skills you’ve learned today to determine if the sentence would use was or were. The answers are at the bottom.

  1. If I _______ Mary, I would wear a lot of blue eye shadow.
  2. When I _______ seven years old, I grew a third arm.
  3. It would be fantastic if she _______ a superhero.
  4. I _______ terrible at math, and I still am.
  5. If I _______ a rockstar, my band name would be Dottie and The Ellipses.

Answers: 1. were (false condition) 2. was (past tense) 3. were (wish/desire) 4. was (past tense) 5. were (unlikely condition)

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26 thoughts on ““If I were you” and other subjunctive stumpers

  1. Well, thank you! I was never taught the subjunctive mood (or if I were- if/then construction, so were is appropriate! – it’s totally gone from my memory), but this explains it nicely. I once read an article or two that said the subjunctive mood was fading away from the English language, and we didn’t need to know it. Have you seen such a trend developing? What do you think?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sue.

    I also don’t recall being taught subjunctive in school. Maybe this is because it is seen as being less important than before. Yes, subjunctive is fading away, but we still hear it with the “If I were you” statements, which is why I focused on using “were” in the subjunctive.

    Glad I could be of help!

  3. Excellent explanation. Good refresher… I vaguely remember the subjunctive mood from some previous life. Keep up the great work!

  4. To be quite honest, one reason I decided to write about this is because I’m learning about the subjunctive mood in French. I think I’ve gotten a more thorough explanation of French subjunctive than I ever did of English subjunctive in school!

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments! They are much appreciated.

    • I had exactly the same experience with learning Spanish — only when I found out about the subjunctive in those classes did I go looking for it in English as well. It’s interesting that we do have one, even though we don’t even know about it any more. Aside from conditionals, it mainly appears in set phrases like ”Long live the queen!” and ”So be it”, but it definitely exists. And long may it last!

  5. thank you soo much for this!! xx i’m sooo sad cause my English teacher (English isn’t my first language) last time told the whole class that – if I were. . – was wrong and never existed!! I was. . doubtful hence I searched. but what about others? :l

  6. Thanks for your comment, Mia. “If I were” does exist in English, but speakers use it less and less. Perhaps this is why your teacher told you that. (Many native English speakers don’t know about subjunctive!)

    You’re welcome to tell me other questions you may have about English. I can try to write about them in future posts.

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  9. For me, as a native English speaker, saying, “If I was you” sounds completely wrong, I would always say, “If I were you.” However I have to say I did get question number 3 wrong in your quiz oops! I’m a fourth year undergrad in French and Spanish at university and finding putting the subjunctive into practice quite difficult! So I guess it helps to go back to your roots for a bit and make a few comparisons (If not all of them work!) Thank you!

  10. Learning correctly english language is not easy. I remember that I had to study very hard the conditional clauses . It was (and it is) very important to learn specially when you need to take Cambridge’s examinanation tests for academic purpose for exemple. I am still trying to improve. Thank you for your explanation. 🙂

  11. Pingback: study #1 | NightlyArt Vault

  12. Rather than explaining it as a ‘mood’ I would ask people to think whether the situation they’re talking about is real or hypothetical. The plural past of the verb ‘to be’ is used when talking about hypothetical or unreal situations.

  13. I Wish I had seen this blog earlier. Simple lessons to ponder on the less used usages .
    I love these usages and I’d like to teach it to others.

  14. OK, old thread, but I have a question. Is the song “I wish I was in the land of cotton” correct English or just colloquial with a helping of literary license? It’s definitely describing a wish AND it is unlikely the person can really be in the land of cotton…otherwise, he’d be there instead of wishing.

  15. I admire anyone who posts anything about the English language, especially when it pertains to standard English usage. Discussions of grammar often lead to heated debates about standard English versus vernacular English. I think your explanation of subjunctive is quite accurate; however, I might suggest one little tweak to your examples.

    If I were her, then I would ride a tricycle.
    If I were him, then I would be the best drag queen.

    The verb “to be” is copulative, and therefore takes the nominative form (I, you, he/she, we, you, they) rather than the objective form (me, you, him/her, us, you, them).

    This being the case, the examples should read

    If I were SHE, then I would ride a tricycle.
    If I were HE, then I would be the best drag queen.

    Think about the “linguistic fossil” used when answering the telephone.

    (Ring, Ring)
    A: Hello?
    B: Yes, may I speak to Mary Smith, please?
    A: This is she.

    While the use of the nominative is almost non-existent in speech today, it is still considered standard English grammar. I know the focus of the post centered on the verb formation, but use of the nominative pronouns in conjunction with subjunctive is an integral part of the (formal) construction.

  16. Here’s an interesting little grammatical tidbit:
    At http://en.what-character-are-you.com/d/en/927/6.html a quiz of 15 grammar questions is proffered to test one’s prowess. When one gets to question 7, he/she is presently thusly:
    ————————————————————–
    How good is your grammar?
    Question 7 of 15
    Now they get a little bit trickier: Which is right?
    If I was you, I would…
    If I am you, I would…
    If I were you, I would…
    —————————————————————
    In order to achieve a perfect score of 15, one would have had to choose the first choice, “If I was you…I would” as the correct answer.
    Nonplussed, I delved more deeply into the apparent anomaly of usage and found a cited example where the simple past case would be adjudged correct. For example, suppose our friend Dick was in Japan when the tsunami hit. Discussing his situation at that time today, I might say “If I was Dick (i.e. in Dick’s situation or in the context “if I had been Dick at the time”), I would have moved to higher ground.” I’m somewhat ambivalent in accepting this example and even more vexed that the quiz elected this ostensibly simple past cast rather than the more acceptable subjunctive mood, but I thought I might throw it out there at any rate to get your opinion.

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