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Subjunctive Verbs

Do you wish you were a rich girl?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
March 5, 2009
Episode #160

Page 1 of 3

Subjunctive Verbs

Today's topic is the past subjunctive, or in terms you might recognize, when to use "I was" and when to use "I were."

Was Versus Were

Carrie from New Orleans asked me to help her understand whether she should say "I wish I were more perceptive" or "I wish I was more perceptive." It's a great question because it's something that a lot of people don't know.

Believe it or not, verbs have moods just like you do. Yes, before the Internet and before emoticons, somebody already thought it was important to communicate moods. So, like many other languages, English has verbs with moods ranging from commanding to questioning and beyond. The mood of the verb "to be" when you use the phrase "I were" is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it for times when you're talking about something that isn't true or you're being wishful.

When to Use Were

Carrie's example is an easy one to start with because her sentence starts with words "I wish"--I wish I were more perceptive--and that's about the biggest clue you can get that her sentence is wishful. Wishful sentences call for the subjunctive mood of the verb "to be," so the right choice is "I were": I wish I were more perceptive. 

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