Using ‘was’ or ‘were’ in a sentence is usually a simple choice, but it’s not always as straightforward as it seems. Do you know if you are using the right one?

The technical bits

‘Was’ and ‘were’ are past tenses of the verb ‘to be’. Being an irregular verb, ‘to be’ does not follow a typical pattern when being conjugated, and if you learned English as a second language it was probably the first irregular verb that was taught to you. So, as a reminder, the past tense of the verb ‘to be’ is

I was / You were / He was / She was / It was / We were / They were

In addition to this, there are three moods in English grammar, and this is where the verb ‘to be’ can become confusing. A mood is a form that a verb takes that indicates how it should be interpreted. The indicative mood is used when you state a fact or opinion, the imperative mood tells you the sentence is an order or an instruction, while the subjunctive mood regards wishes, suggestions or hypotheticals.

In practice

The big difference in how you should use ‘was’ or ‘were’ depends on whether the sentence is in the past tense/indicative mood or the subjunctive mood. For the past tense/indicative, all you need to do is determine what person the sentence is in. For first and third person singular (I/he/she/it), use was.

‘I know what happened. I was there.’ / ‘She knows what happened. She was there.’

For first and third person plural (we/they) and second person singular and plural (you/your/yours), use were.

‘We know what happened. We were there.’ / ‘You know what happened. You were there.’

The subjunctive, however, does not work in this way. This mood always takes were, regardless of what person the sentence is in. You might be tempted to say

‘If I was rich, I would travel the world.’

But the correct form is

‘If I were rich, I would travel the world.’

This sentence is in the subjunctive because it describes something that is hypothetical, so it needs ‘were’, not ‘was’.

Quick hack

Determining if a sentence is in the subjunctive mood can be slightly complicated sometimes, so look for words such as wish and if. A sentence with either of those will most likely be in the subjunctive, so if the verb is ‘to be’ you know you should use ‘were’. However, not all instances of these words will automatically be subjunctive, so you need to take an extra element into consideration.

Is the sentence about something that is not real, has not happened or something the subject wishes/wants to happen? Use ‘were’. Is the sentence stating a fact or something with the possibility of being real? ‘Was’ is the correct choice.

‘Writing Woes’ is a series of blog posts breaking down common issues writers can come across and explaining the rules behind them in a clear and simple way. Read more posts in the series here.

Sofia Matias is a professional writer, editor and proofreader. She specialises in working with independent authors of Young Adult and genre fiction, publishers and publications. She is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Learn more about her and her services on her website and connect via TwitterLinkedInFacebook or Instagram.

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