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Subjunctive Verbs

Do you wish you were a rich girl?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
March 5, 2009
Episode #160

Page 2 of 3

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've got 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 he were nicer, I wouldn't hate him so much.

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, he will never be nicer, 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 might need the subjunctive mood.

When to Use Was

But "if" and "could" and similar words don't always mean you need to use "I were." For example, when you are supposing about something that might be true, you use use the verb "was." Here's an example:

There was a storm in Mexico. If Richard was in Cabo, he could have missed the call.

Did you hear how that sentence used "if" and "could," but I was talking about something I think was likely to have happened? Because there was a storm, and Richard was in the area, he may have missed the call. The possibility that it happened is what makes this sentence need the indicative mood and not the subjunctive mood. It's why I say "If Richard was" instead of "If Richard were": If Richard was in Cabo, he could have missed the call.

Here's another one:

If Bill was to come over for coffee (as he does every Sunday), we would talk about football.

Again, the reason that is not in the subjunctive mood and I don't say "If Bill were to come over" is that it's not contrary to fact, presupposed to be false, or wishful. It's likely to happen. It's an indicative statement about what will happen if Bill comes over.

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