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Was vs. Were: When to Use Each in the Past and Subjunctive Image

Phrases like “if I was” and “if I were” are both used frequently, but there’s actually a time and place for each.

Read on for more on how to use “was” and “were” appropriately, and learn why Gwen Stefani’s high school English teacher probably cringed when she heard her croon “If I was a rich girl . . .”

Past and Subjunctive Verb Tenses

Was and were are both are both forms of the verb “to be.” However, if we look at the past and subjunctive tenses, we’ll see a couple of differences.

Past Tense

The past tense describes an action that already happened, or the state of something in the past.

The conjugation of the verb “to be” in the past tense is as follows:

  • I was
  • You were
  • She/he/it was
  • We were
  • You (all) were
  • They were

Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood describes something that is not certain, but hypothetical. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t.

Statements with a subjunctive mood often start with “if.”

The conjugation of the verb “to be” in the subjunctive mood is as follows:

  • I were
  • You were
  • She/he/it were
  • We were
  • You (all) were
  • They were

It might seem strange to read the words “I were” or “it were,” but this is correct if the statement that follows is hypothetical or didn’t actually happen.

For example, the statement “If I were younger, I would travel the world” uses the subjunctive mood, because the speaker is expressing something that is not the case today.

Was vs. Were Examples

Below are several examples that illustrate when to use was and when to use were.

  • If it were that simple, I would have solved the problem by now.
  • If I was wrong about my assumption, please let me know.
  • I wish I were taller.
  • If he were right, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.

“If I Was” or “If I Were”?

Always use were with statements that do not in any way reflect the current reality. Use was to describe events that happened for a fact.

Also, any sentence or clause that begins with “I wish” will certainly take were instead of was, because a wish, and not something that actually materialized.

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