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So Which Is It—Was or Were?

We’ve all been there. Is it I was, or I were? Just by the sound of it, one would think that I was would always be correct. But, not so fast.

There are a couple of situations in which the obvious is not to be trusted.

One instance that can be confusing is a sentence that begins with the word There. In this case,one must identify the subject of the sentence to which there refers and determine if that word is singular or plural. In such a sentence, the subject follows the verb. It may be necessary for you to mentally deconstruct the sentence, reversing the order of the subject and the verb. This makes it relatively easy to identify the subject and determine whether it is singular or plural. Then it is a simple matter of choosing either a singular or a plural verb to match the subject.

For example:

Singular: There was a man at the end of the street. (A man was at the end of the street.)

Plural: There were three men at the end of the street. (Three men were at the end of the street.)

Another confusing situation arises with the use of the conjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood departs from reality. It may be a supposition, a condition, a hypothetical, or an imaginary situation. Here is an easy tip: The subjunctive mood always uses the past tense verb, were. If your sentence is speaking of anything that is not reality, then the verb were is the correct choice, regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural. Although not always the case, use of the word if could be your clue that you’re using the subjunctive mood. But not every sentence beginning with the word if will be the subjunctive mood.

Remember: Reality = was and unreality = were.


If I were rich, I’d buy that car. (Unreality)

If I am correct about her age, she is too young to work here. (There is a good chance that the supposition is true.)

Now, you no longer need to wonder if you’ve used this irregular verb correctly! Easy-Peasy, right?