Many writers are unsure when to use the verbs was and were with the subjunctive. In this post I explain what the subjunctive is and share some guidelines for determining when to use was and when to use were.

What Is the Subjunctive?

The subjunctive is a grammatical form known as a “mood.” A mood in grammar refers to verbs. In the indicative mood, verbs describe factual reality: “The apple is red” or “I went to the movies.” In the subjunctive mood, verbs describe uncertain situations, such as in conditional statements or wishes: “If I wanted excitement, I would go skydiving” or “Heaven help us.”

The subjunctive mood uses the verb were where was would be used in the indicative. So whereas in an indicative construction you would write “I was there” (stating a fact), in a similar subjunctive construction you would write “I wish I were there” (stating a wish). But how do you know if a statement requires the subjunctive and thus needs were instead of was?

Was or Were?

The usage expert Claire Kehrwald Cook offers a straightforward method for determining when to use the subjunctive, and thus also when to use were and when to use was. You need the subjunctive when referring to “[a] condition that differs from the one known to exist—a condition contrary to fact, in other words” (197). In a statement like “I wish I were there,” you know that you are not, in fact, there. And so were is needed. Alternatively, Cook writes, “when the clause expresses a condition that may or may not exist,” you don’t need the subjunctive and can use was instead of were. As Cook explains, “The was is appropriate, for example, in If he was at the meeting, he has undoubtedly heard the news. He may have been there—we don’t know” (197).

In summary, if you know a condition isn’t true, use were. If you’re not sure, use was. Thus, a phrase like “If I were you” always needs were, because you are putting yourself in the position of someone you know is not you. But in a phrase like “If the code was changed, you’ll need to let me know,” the was is correct, because you’re not sure if the code was changed or not.

If I were you, I’d bookmark this post.

Work Cited

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.

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Joseph Wallace

Joseph Wallace copyedits articles for PMLA and writes posts for the Style Center. He received a PhD in English literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before coming to the Modern Language Association, he edited articles for Studies in Philology and taught courses on writing and early modern literature.