Grammar 13 min read

The Definitive Guide: When to use Was vs. Were

Both was and were are correct forms of the verb “to be.” However, when to use was vs. were depends on whether you’re talking about something imaginary or something real. Hypothetical situations need the subjunctive mood, so you should use were regardless of the speaker’s point of view. However, situations that actually happened in the past need the indicative mood. This means subject-verb agreement comes into play, so you should use was with I/he/she (She was here) but were with you/we/they (You/we/they were here).

(indicative mood = reality) She was the national women’s champion for eight years straight.
(indicative mood = reality) You were right about bringing an umbrella.
(subjunctive mood = imaginary) If you were to tell him no, what do you think he’d say?
(indicative mood = reality) There was a pan of roasted vegetables in the oven for dinner.
(subjunctive mood = imaginary) If I were a boy, I wouldn’t have to answer that question.

When to Use Was vs. Were at a Glance:

🤩 Flawless spelling & grammar are just the beginning. Eliminate errors, get topic ideas, increase productivity, and outrank your competition with the #1 smartest content editor — INK. 🤩
Get the Best Writing Tool For Free
First AI web content optimization platform just for writers
GET INK

Should you use was or were? This is a grammar question that even native English speakers struggle to answer correctly. Let’s look at the easiest way to know the difference between was and were. What’s more, you’ll see was vs. were example sentences and learn how to correctly use this irregular verb.

Indicative Mood: Past tense of the verb “to be”I wasyou werehe wasshe wasit waswe wereyou werethey were
Subjunctive Mood: Hypothetical situations with the verb “to be”I wereyou werehe wereshe wereit werewe wereyou werethey were
Past (reality) vs. subjunctive (imaginary) conjugations of “to be.”

In this way, the difference between was and were comes down to describing something that actually happened in the past vs. an imaginary situation that never happened at all. Moreover, it also depends on who is speaking. Finally, subject-verb agreement also comes into play.

A man looking confused about was vs were.
Was and were are past tense versions of the verb to be. They are both correct, depending on the context.

3 Easy Steps That Tell you When to use Was vs. Were

1. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did it really occur in the past?
  • Or, are we talking about an imaginary situation that can’t be real?

2. If it actually occurred in the past:

Use was with the first and third person singular points of view:

  • I was
  • She was
  • He was
  • It was
  • You were

But, use were with the second person (you) or third person (they) plural points of view. This helps ensure correct subject-verb agreement.

  • You were
  • They were

3. If the situation is imaginary and can’t be real:

Were is the only correct option. As such, use were for every point of view.

If I were a professor, I would be eligible for the grant.
She always wished she were born in ancient Rome.
If there were more children, we’d need to hire another teacher.
I bet Grandma and Grandpa would consider space tourism if they were a little younger.

[example] In the off-chance that we were lottery winners, we’d donate at least half of the sum to science.

“Was” Usually Refers to the Past

When you see the word “was,” we’re most likely talking about something that previously occurred.

Specifically, was indicates that the first and third singular person points of view acted in the past. For this reason, we use was with the indicative mood.

I was in line to vote for three hours.
She was driving on the expressway when she saw the band’s tour bus go by.
It was the worst party he’d ever been to until they rolled out the cake.

In other words, the rule for was/were typically comes down to singular vs. plural when using the past tense of the verb “to be.”

However, as with most grammatical rules in English, there is an exception here.

“If I Was:” Exceptions to the Rule

Most statements that include if are subjunctive. In these cases, we use were. Notwithstanding, there is one exception for the first person point of view: I.

On one side, we have was in the indicative mood to indicate reality.

On the other, we have were in the subjunctive mood to refer to imaginary or hypothetical situations.

But, there is also a third option in the middle: what should you use when you aren’t sure if something is real or imaginary?

In this case, “If I was” is the grammatically correct choice. In other words, when it’s not clear if something is real or hypothetical, “I was” is correct.

If I was wrong, then I’m sorry.

In the above example, the speaker isn’t sure if they made a mistake or not. This situation might be imaginary, but it might also be real. As a result, the speaker can’t use were since this option is for purely imaginary situations.

Therefore, we use “If I was” to show this doubt grammatically.

I’m sorry if I weren’t polite back there.
I’m sorry if I wasn’t polite back there.

Now, let’s compare the If I was vs. were” in action:

(Hypothetical) If I were living in Los Angeles, then I would drive to work.

The above example expresses a purely imaginary situation: I don’t live in Los Angeles, so I don’t drive to work. I show that the scenario isn’t real by using the verb “to be” with the subjunctive mood were.

(Uncertainty) If I was living in Los Angeles at that time, then I would have driven to work.

Conversely, the above example expresses doubt. For instance, I did live in Los Angeles in the past, but I don’t anymore. Additionally, I used to drive, but I don’t anymore.

If I don’t remember exactly when I moved or when I stopped driving, I should use the if I was construction to express this doubt to my audience.

A boy and girl holding sign boards. The boy's sign board reads WAS. Past tense: First person singular. The girl's sign board reads WERE. Past tense: second person singular/plural.
The difference between was and were comes down to describing something that actually happened in the past vs. an imaginary situation that never happened at all.

When “Were” is Past Tense and When it’s Subjunctive

Was tends to hang out exclusively with the past tense in the indicative mood. However, were can express the real past tense in the indicative mood or an imaginary situation in the subjunctive mood. How do you tell the difference?

Were and Past Tense

The trick here is to associate were and the past tense with subject-verb agreement. In other words, whether you should use was vs. were depends on who is speaking.

For example, use was with these points of view:

  • First person singular = I was
  • Third person singular = he/she/it was

However, use were with these points of view:

  • Second person singular = you were
  • Second person plural = you (all) were
  • First person plural = we were
  • Third person plural = they were

Should I use Was or Were with There?

Whether to use was or were with there has to do with subject-verb agreement. When a sentence starts with the word there, the words following the verb are typically the subject. For example, in the sentence “There are oranges on the table,” the subject is oranges. If the subject is singular, then you should use the verb was (“There was an orange…“). Yet, if the subject is plural, then the correct verb to use is were (“There were oranges…“).

There were an unexpected snowstorm on the day they got married.
There was an unexpected snowstorm on the day they got married.
There were three horses standing in the shade beneath the trees that day.

📝 Whether to use was or were depends on several factors, including:

Were and the Subjunctive Mood

Subjunctive what? Unless you’re a diehard grammarian or advanced polyglot, you’ve probably never heard of subjunctive mood. In simple terms, the phrase describes a verb tense we associate with unreal statements or questions.

Essentially, whereas most statements reveal something that is currently happening or has previously happened, a subjunctive sentence refers to something that hasn’t actually happened. That may be a want, a wish, or a suggestion.

📝 We use the subjunctive mood to express:

  • Demands
  • Proposals
  • Desires
  • Wishfulness
  • Hypothetical situations
  • Possibilities

In both written and spoken English, subjunctive mood usually appears by an indicative verb such as want, wish, desire, suggest, or recommend. What’s more, sentences that express possibilities often include the word if.

When creating a subjunctive mood, the traditional singular/plural rules for was/were don’t apply. In fact, when it comes to the subjunctive mood, there’s an easy rule for choosing was or were: always choose were.

📝 Phrases used to express subjunctive mood include:

  • I were
  • You were
  • He/she were
  • It were
  • They were
  • This were
  • That were
If I were shorter, I wouldn’t have to duck every time I went down to the basement.
He acted as if he were the best player on the team, even though he’d barely made the cut.
The researchers wished they were Nobel Prize winners.
If it were easier to win, then it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

You’ll note that none of these examples describes a current reality. Instead, they all describe hypothetical, desired, or imaginary situations. Therefore, we use were regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural to make this departure from reality clear.

Which is Correct Grammatically: If I Was or If I Were?

Both of the phrases if I was and if I were are grammatically correct, but they mean very different things. Therefore, the difference between if I was and if I were depends on what you are trying to say. First, use if I was for something that might be real, or to express doubt when you’re not sure if something is true (If I was late responding to you, I apologize). Second, use if I were to express something unreal, imaginary, or hypothetical (If I were a dragon…”

Often, the word if introduces subjunctive mood. When a sentence includes the phrase if I was or if I were, grammatists tend to label this subjunctive mood. That means the sentence refers to something that goes against, or is contrary to, the current truth. In other words, the sentence may express a desire, wish, possibility, or hypothetical situation. For subjunctive statements or questions, the grammatically correct phrase is “If I were“.

Was and Were Sentence Examples

Here are examples of was vs. were in a sentence:

When I was 10, I wanted to go to Australia. But, if I were to plan a trip now, I would love to visit Singapore.
There were boxes filled with crayons by the front door of the preschool.
They were telling the truth about who started the fire. Now we know it was all an unfortunate accident.
If you were a little nicer, I might be your friend.
If this were a real check, it would have a watermark.
As a child, he often wished he were taller, so he could reach the cookie jar.
Was or were? A girl dancing. Text reads: She was dancing. Second image shows the girl with a boy dancing. Text reads: They were dancing.
Was and were are both past tense of the verb “to be.” Was is used when referring to first person singular. Were is used when referring to second person singular/plural.

Can you say if I Were?

You can say if I were. In fact, were is typically the correct conjugation of the verb to be in this context. Because this phrase begins with the word if, it’s subjunctive mood. That’s another way of saying it describes a hypothetical or unreal situation. In subjunctive sentences, the correct form of to be is always were.

If I was an airplane pilot, I’d go anywhere I wanted.
If I were an airplane pilot, I’d go anywhere I wanted.
Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I were to stop eating meat.
Don’t tell me what I could do if I were mayor of the city. It’s never going to happen.
If I were more like you, we’d both be in big trouble.

Is If I Were a Boy Grammatically Correct?

If I were a boy is grammatically correct. This construction is correct because it reflects subjunctive mood. In other words, the phrase refers to a hypothetical or unreal situation. In this particular hypothetical, the writer is speculating about what might happen if her gender were different. When you write a sentence using subjunctive mood, you should always conjugate the the verb “to be” as were— regardless of the speaker’s point of view.

If I was a boy, I would totally have a beard.
If I were a boy, I would totally have a beard.
I would probably look like my brother if I was a boy.
I would probably look like my brother if I were a boy.

Were vs. Was: a Matter of Style?

It’s also worth noting that more and more writers are opting to use was instead of were in subjunctive sentences. This is particularly true in informal prose. It’s led some grammarians to speculate about the subjunctive were eventually becoming obsolete.

A Brief Was/Were Recap

By following a few basic rules, understanding when to use was and were doesn’t have to leave you with a headache.

  1. When conjugating the verb to be in the past tense, use was when writing in first or third person singular. Use were when writing in second person singular or plural or first-person or third-person plural.
  2. Use were when crafting sentences that involve hypothetical situations, speculation, or wishes. This is known as subjunctive mood and is often identified by the inclusion of the word if.
  3. If a sentence starts with the word there, use was if the subject is singular. Use were if the subject is plural.

Main Was vs. Were Takeaways:

  • Was and were are past tense versions of the verb to be. They are both correct, depending on the context.
  • When you want to talk about an imaginary, hypothetical, or unreal situation, use the subjunctive mood were across the board (If I were a dinosaur…).
  • When you want to talk about reality, follow the normal conjugation for the verb “to be” in the past tense. Use the indicative mood was for I/he/she (She was here) but were with you/we/they (You/we/they were here).

Practice Your Grammar Skills With These Was and Were Exercises

Was and Were Question #1

“Was” and “were” are ___ that express the past tense “to be.”
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. “Was” and “were” are past tense versions of the verb “to be.”

Use or When Question #2

Which of the following determines whether to use “was” or “when” in a sentence?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is D. All the factors outlined above can determine whether to use “was” or “when”.

Was vs. Were Question #3

____ is acceptable when writing in singular first person or third person.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WAS. “Was” is the correct choice when writing in first person or third person (he, she, it) singular.

Were vs. Was Question #4

_____ is acceptable when writing in the second person singular, second-person plural, and first and third-person plural.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WERE. “Were” is correct when writing in the second-person singular, second-person plural, and first and third-person plural.

Was and Were Question #5

______ is used for hypothetical situations.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WERE. Hypothetical situations need the subjunctive mood. So “were” is appropriate.

Was vs. Were Question #6

The subjunctive mood does NOT express _____.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is C. A subjunctive sentence refers to something that hasn’t happened.

Were vs. Was Question #7

_____ is used for situations that happened in the past.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is C. Either can be appropriate, depending on the subject-verb agreement.

Was or Were Question #8

Complete the sentence. I _____ a professional athlete.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WAS. The situation occurred in the past, and it’s in first-person singular.

Were or Was Question #9

Complete the sentence. Jane’s brothers _____ scientists.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WERE. The situation occurred in the past, and it’s in third-person plural.

Was vs. Were Question #10

Complete the sentence. If I ___ taller, I would play professional basketball.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WERE. The situation is imaginary.

Were vs. Was Question #11

Complete the sentence. John ___ my best friend.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WAS. The situation occurred in the past, and it’s in third-person singular.

Was vs. Were Question #12

Complete the sentence. Jack and Jill ____ in Paris last year.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is WERE. The situation occurred in the past, and it’s in third-person plural.

Was vs. Were Quiz Result
Expert!

Expert!

Not bad!

Not bad!

Almost got it! Review the article and try again.

Almost got it! Review the article and try again.

Read More: 🛣️ Toward Vs. Towards: An Easy Guide On When To Use Which

First AI Web Content Optimization Platform Just for Writers

Found this article interesting?

Let Pam Weber know how much you appreciate this article by clicking the heart icon and by sharing this article on social media.


Profile Image

Pam Weber

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, Writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

Comments (0)
Most Recent most recent
You
share Scroll to top

Link Copied Successfully

Sign in

Sign in to access your personalized homepage, follow authors and topics you love, and clap for stories that matter to you.

Sign in with Google Sign in with Facebook

By using our site you agree to our privacy policy.