Hypothetically speaking: were vs. was

By Mary Schrack

Remember the old hot dog jingle?

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener. That is what I’d truly like to be. For if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.

If you’re struggling with when to use were and when to use was, remember that song. It’s a perfect example of how to use the subjunctive form of the verb “to be” correctly. If you’re talking about something that is not true—or can’t be true—use were. Use the subjunctive with events that are not definite, such as wants or wishes. There is no way a person could be a hot dog, so the jingle uses were.

Use the indicative was with events that are likely to happen or that could very well be true. Example: “If John was to check his email as often as he usually does, he would turn the report in on time.” Since checking email is part of John’s routine, the speaker can be fairly certain he will meet the deadline and therefor uses was.

Often I hear people say was when talking about a wish or something else that is uncertain or false. Only use was when you say something that is probably true or definite.

What other grammar rules do you find especially tricky? Do you have a good trick to share?

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2 responses to “Hypothetically speaking: were vs. was

  1. A trick to share: So many folks get ‘its’ (possessive of it) and ‘it’s’ (contraction of ‘it is’) wrong. It’s even incorrect in Microsoft spell check!!! The easiest way for me to remember it is that NO possessive personal pronouns use an apostrophe:

    my/mine; your/yours; his; hers; its; theirs

    • You’re absolutely right; many people seem to think “it’s” is a possessive pronoun when it is actually a contraction. Thanks for the tip and other examples!

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