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Nutters.org The Nutter Log
Pedant's Corner: Was and Were Entry id: was-were
By The Famous Brett Watson
On Tue, 16 May 2006 12:18:41 +0000

My little discussion of "less" and "fewer" is a relatively popular entry on this site. A while back, someone sent me the following message in relation to it.

Thanks for the info on "fewer" and "less" -- just what I needed. Now, I'm in a debate over the correct use of "If I WERE king..." vs. "If I WAS king..." Which is it?

For your edification, here are my thoughts on the matter.

Sentences starting with "if" typically employ the "subjunctive mood", describing a hypothetical situation, as opposed to the "indicative mood" which describes an actual event. Both "were" and "was" are forms of the verb "to be". "Were" is used in all forms of the subjunctive mood (e.g. "if I were king", "if we were in France"), and in the plural and second-person singular forms of the past tense indicative mood (e.g. "you were happy", "they were heroes"). "Was", on the other hand, is only used in the indicative mood for first and third person singular past tense (e.g. "I was happy", "he was a hero").

In short, "was" is only for actual past events (not hypothetical ones), and only to be used in conjunction with the singular first person ("I") or singular third person. All other past events use "were", as do hypothetical events.

The construct "if I were king..." looks like a valid use of the subjunctive mood: it suggests to the listener that they should imagine, for the sake of discussion, that you have somehow become king, and presumably you are about to tell us what you would do if that were the case. (Note use of subjunctive mood in "if that were the case".)

What about "if I was king...?" Is that potentially valid, or is it ungrammatical? "If" can be used in non-subjunctive cases, as in "if X, then Y", where X and Y are statements. In that construction, X is not assumed for the sake of argument; rather, the "if" builds a conditional claim that statement Y is true when statement X is true. Based on this, the phrase "if I was king" might be appropriate in a sentence like, "if I was king, I can no longer remember it." Contrast this with a subjunctive mood statement, such as, "if I were king, I'd give you a knighthood."

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