Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tip - Was vs. Were

On last week's writing tip, I said that I would be hitting was/were this week as my tricky word pair to highlight. Back in April, I posted about was/were, because this was one of those pairings that just messed me all up. I know which word is the plural verb and which is the singular (they were, I was), but in sentences such as the following, it's a bit tougher:
I wish I were/was an Oscar Meyer weiner.
If he were/was to retire, which I think he will, who will fill his role?

I've included the main body of my previous post, since my readership has grown significantly since I originally posted this and many of you missed it the first time around:

I have recently identified that was vs. were is one of my personal writing challenges. Until just a few minutes ago, I wasn't (or weren't) really sure which version of the verb "be" to use and when. Is it I was or I were? Hmm.

As with everything else I'm unsure of in my life, I decided to do some research. For this, I went to the Grammar Girl. I've used her a lot and she didn't fail me here, either.

It seems that when the thought or idea being written about is wishful, likely to be false, or is otherwise reminiscing in nature, you use "I were," even though the subject is singular. If the thought or idea is true or based on fact or supposition that it is true, you use "I was."

1. If I were a man, I would never hit a woman. (I am a woman. This would be "wishful thinking" so we use "I were" even though the subject "I" is singular.)
2. If Sara was to order a pizza, we could stay in for lunch. (Because Sara mentioned she would be ordering a pizza, this is likely to happen, so "was" is used)

Same sentence, written two ways:

If John was to come home early, we could go to a movie. (Because it's a holiday and John's boss hinted that the office was going to close early, this is likely to happen. Hence: "was")

If John were to come home early, we could go to a movie. (Because it's a week day and not a holiday and John NEVER comes home early, this is wishful thinking. Hence: "were")

To summarize:
Wishful thinking or false: "were."
Likely to happen or based on fact: "was."

I've attached Grammar Girl's link if you want to read more in-depth about this topic.
So, you tell me, what are YOUR tricky word pairs?
Happy Writing!


  1. Very nice job of explaining this. The "wish" phrases are known as the subjunctive tense. I know this from studying French and Spanish, but I was never given a clear explanation like the one here.


    1. Thank you. I know I get all discombobulated when I start hear all the fancy grammar terminology, so I try hard to keep the explanations simple to understand.

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