In speaking and writing English, it is important to remind ourselves about the correct use of the words ‘was’ and ‘were’. Although these two verbs are used quite a lot in English, they are misused in certain instances. For this reason, let us take a look at how and when you should use the words ‘was’ and ‘were’.
‘Was’ and ‘were’ are forms of the verb ‘to be’, which is used to describe a fact about someone or something (such as the role, state, or position).
“Jenny is a carpenter.”
The sentence above is stating Jenny’s role as a carpenter.
Further, ‘was’ and ‘were’ are the past indicative forms of the verb ‘to be’, which describes a fact about someone or something in the past. The big difference is that ‘was’ is singular while ‘were’ is plural. The singular ‘was’ is used when the subject is singular.
“The man was at the graveyard digging up graves.”
Likewise, the plural ‘were’ is used when the subject is plural.
“The ladies were very loud tonight.”
In relation to pronouns, the word ‘was’ is used for 1st-person singular (I) and 3rd-person singular (he, she and it) pronouns. In contrast, ‘were’ is used for 1st-person (we), 2nd-person (you), and 3rd-person plural (they) pronouns. This information can be represented as follows:
I was…, he was…, she was…, it was…
You were…, we were…, they were…
In grammar editing, we find the most common misuse of these two verbs pertains to the subjunctive mood. One example is:
“If I were a bird, I would soar through the clouds.”
Most people would select the verb ‘was’ owing to the singular pronoun (I) before the verb. Such persons may not be familiar with the subjunctive mood of the verb ‘to be’. The speaker of the sentence is not stating a fact but rather a wish or desire that is uncertain or impossible at that time. Therefore, the subjunctive form of the verb must be used. Another common example of the subjunctive mood is:
“If I were rich, I would buy a house like that.”
The speaker of this statement is relating a desire to be rich and what he or she would do if they were rich. At that moment, the desire is uncertain and not a fact; therefore, the subjunctive mood is used.
To show the subjunctive mood of the verb ‘to be’, the word ‘were’ is used, regardless of the subject of the verb. This means that no matter what the subject is, whether it is singular or plural, the form of the verb used is ‘were’.
“If he were a carpenter, would you marry him?”
“If that man were taller, he would have made a great basketball player.”
FUN FACT: A famous example of this is Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy”.
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