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Subjunctive Verbs

Do you wish you were a rich girl?

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #513

Subjunctive Verbs

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.

Thanks again to Carrie for the question. If you have a question you can post it on Facebook or Twitter.

Mignon Fogarty is the author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

"Wish" image, Joey Gannon via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

This article was originally published March 5, 2009 and was updated April 20, 2016.

 

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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