Do you wish you were a rich girl?
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Here's another example to help you remember. Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He's not rich, he's just imagining, so "If I were" is the correct statement.
This time you have a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word "if." Although it's not always the case, sentences that start with "if" are often also wishful or contrary to fact. Here are some examples:
If I were in charge, I would declare every Friday a holiday.
If Squiggly were more generous, he would share his chocolate.
If the ladder were taller, we could reach the cat.
All those sentences use the verb "were" because they aren't true. I was just talking about things I wish would happen or talking about what would happen if things were different from what they actually are. I can't declare every Friday a holiday, Squiggly isn't very generous (especially with chocolate), and the ladder will never be taller.
Also notice how in each of those sentences, the part that follows the subjunctive verb contains a word such as "would" or "could." I would declare a holiday. We could reach the cat. Those wishful words are also a clue that you may need the subjunctive mood.
Mignon Fogarty is the author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
This article was originally published March 5, 2009 and was updated April 20, 2016.