Distinguishing the proper occasions to use the auxiliary verbs was and were is a perennially area of confusion for English language learners. The goal of this page is to make it clear to readers. There are two conditions governing this decision:
- The case and singularity or plurality of the subject
- Whether the statement is true or contrary to the facts
Case and Plurality or Singularity of the Subject
In order to understand how this affects usage, we must share a common vocabulary. First, you must understand that the subject of the sentence is merely the noun or the pronoun that takes the action.
John was reading.
We were reading.
The subjects in the above sentence are underlined. Notice that the sentences are identical except for the subjects and the instances of was and were? This is because the subjects have different cases and singularity / plurality. Case refers to the perspective of the subject: is it first, second, or third-person?
Case and Singularity or Plurality Chart for Subjects
|First-Person||I (singular), we (plural)|
|Third-Person||He (singular), she (singular), it (singular), they (plural), and proper nouns|
Both the case and the singularity or plurality of the subject govern whether the speaker should use the word was or were.
I was reading.
We were reading.
You were reading.
He was reading.
She was reading.
They were reading.
Tom was reading.
It was reading.
Tom and Paul were reading.
Whether the Statement is True: the If Statement
The other deciding factor in the quandary of when to use was and when to use were is whether or not the statement is true or contrary to fact. If the statement is true, the decision is governed by the case and singularity or plurality rules; however, if the statement is contrary to the facts, the speaker or writer should always use were as the auxiliary verb. Statements that are contrary to fact, put simply, are not true. Such statements typically begin with the subordinating conjunction if or are preceded by a short clause where wish functions as the verb. In such cases, were is the grammatically correct choice.
If I were president…
He wishes he were president.
If the above sentences sound funny to you, you’re not alone. The second one even sounds a bit odd to me, but this is just another great example of why it’s better to learn the rules of a language than to go by how it sounds.