Today’s topic is the 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 emoji, 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 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.
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.