"Was" or "Were" - It's more than just numbers

It's also mood!

You may be forgiven if you no longer remember what Sister Mary Madonna said about “subjunctive mood.” Why, I haven’t had a conversation about subjunctive mood for at least 15 years; I’m pretty sure you haven’t either. But you might sometimes wonder whether your verb should be “was” or “were.”  Your first instinct, probably, is to ask whether it’s singular or plural, and that’s smart. (Joe was a baker. His two brothers were bricklayers.) But there’s more to it than that – and it’s a guideline you can learn without using any arcane verbiage.

What you do need to remember is what happens when you get into a subjunctive mood. That is, when:

·      You are making a statement contrary to fact

·      You are posing a hypothetical situation

Let’s focus on the first example, because that’s where “was” and “were” often get confused.

·      Fact: Kevin was a pizza deliveryman.

·      Fact: Kevin wanted to be a fireman.

·      Contrary to fact:

o   If Kevin were a fireman, he would put out fires instead of delivering pizza.

o   Were Kevin a fireman, he would not work for a pizza parlor. (But the fact is, Kevin was a pizza deliveryman.)


Do you see the difference? The fact is, Kevin was a pizza delivery man. He was not the fireman he longed to be. Therefore it would be contrary to fact to identify Kevin as a fireman. If Kevin were a fireman, “Kevin is a fireman” would be true. Were he really a fireman, you could assert that. See the challenge? People want to say “If Kevin was a fireman…” It’s contrary to fact, so it is “were,” not “was.” Now, if you never remember the reason -  subjunctive mood - that’s perfectly okay. Just remember: Contrary to fact = “were” instead of “was.”

Here’s another one:

·      Fact: You have to make a life and death decision today.

·      Fact: I do not have to make such a decision today.

·      Contrary to fact:

o   If I were in your position, I’d decide to climb to high ground and avoid the tsunami.

o   Were I in the path of the tsunami, I’d climb that big hill. (However, I’m nowhere near the tsunami, and you are. This is purely hypothetical.)

I am not in your position (thank heavens). If I were, I’d take action. But it’s never “If I was…” It’s a statement contrary to fact. (That’s subjunctive mood, but who cares?) The important thing is that, if it’s contrary to fact, it’s “were” instead of “was.”

A few more examples for good measure, because this is not easy:

·      If you were to visit me for the holidays, Suzanne, what would you like to do for fun? (See, it’s just hypothetical. No one has yet committed to visiting me for the holidays.)

·      Were I a poet, I would be able to describe Mt. Rainier in words that would communicate its majesty to the world. (But the fact is, I’m no poet.)

·      If the election were over, we could all get a good night’s sleep. (No explanation required, right?)

Remember, if the statement is contrary to fact, you replace “was” with “were.” If Sr. Mary Madonna were still alive, she would teach you that. (So, quiz question: Based on that last sentence, is Sr. Mary Madonna still among the living?)