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.
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.
- If I _______ Mary, I would wear a lot of blue eye shadow.
- When I _______ seven years old, I grew a third arm.
- It would be fantastic if she _______ a superhero.
- I _______ terrible at math, and I still am.
- 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)