“Was” vs. “Were”: Use Cases And Examples

There are plenty of questions associated with the verb to be. “To be or not to be,” for one. On a less existential note, there’s the question of how to use to be in the grammatically correct way. I am, you are, he was, they were—the forms of the verb to be, among many other things, are messy in English.

You might find yourself puzzling out a sentence such as: If she was unhappy, she should have said so. Is this sentence correct? Or should If she was switch to the phrase If she were?

Was vs. were, what’s the difference?

Much of the confusion lies in when to use was versus were, which are the past tense forms of to be. The answer all depends on two factors: 1) is your verb using first, second, or third person? And, 2) is your verb in past indicative or past subjunctive tense? Past indicative is used for ordinary objective statements or questions, and past subjunctive is used for imaginary or hypothetical statements or questions.

Were is always correct in the past subjunctive:

 

  • I were
  • You were
  • He/she/it were
  • We were
  • You were
  • They were

If this looks a little odd, remember that these constructions are often accompanied by a word like if, as if, and though. You might say, “If I were a rich man …”

Don’t we all wish we were rich … so would you say “wish I was” or “wish I were”?

To conjugate to be in the past indicative, however, using was or were depends on the subject:

 

  • I was
  • You were
  • He/she/it was
  • We were
  • You were
  • They were

It’s possible to get mixed up even with this straight conjugation in mind. But there are some tips and tricks to remember to make sure you use the correct verb form every time.

When to use was

Was is a past tense indicative form of be, meaning “to exist or live,” and is used in the first person singular (I) and the third person singular (he/she/it).

You use the past indicative when you’re talking about reality and known facts. If you went to the store, for example, then you would say, “I was at the store” because it is something that definitely happened. The same is true if you’re talking about someone else in the third person (or if you make the choice to talk about yourself in the third person). You would say, “Sarah was at the store,” for example, or “She was at the store.”

Another way to use was is as an auxiliary verb with a singular subject in the past continuous tense. An auxiliary verb is used with another verb that follows it in the sentence to express different tenses, aspects, moods, etc., and the past continuous tense refers to something that was ongoing in the past.

If you were to modify the previous example (I was at the store) with an auxiliary verb, you would say, “I was searching for spices at the store.” Was is the auxiliary verb (or helping verb) used to talk about what you were doing in the past (searching).

Examples of was in a sentence

So to recap, if you’re talking about something real that happened in the past, use the past tense indicative: I was or he/she/it was. (Were is used with the other pronouns.) Here are some example sentences:

 

  • I was sick last night.
  • He had an amazing imagination when he was a child.
  • We turned down the music because it was too loud.

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When to use were

Whereas was is the singular past tense of to be, were is used for both the third person plural past tense (they and we) and the second person past tense (you).

In the past indicative, were acts similar to was. “They were at the store,” you could say, for example. It also acts similar as an auxiliary verb, as in “They were searching for spices at the store.”

Things get a little more complicated with were, though, and it’s all thanks to this thing called the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive mood is the opposite of indicative, and it’s all about things that are unreal or conditional. When you’re talking about your hopes and dreams, you’re using the subjunctive mood. The same goes for talking about something you intend or want to do, as well as for things you know will never be true or are no longer true.

A telltale sign that you’re working with the subjunctive mood is the word if, because this suggests a hypothetical. “If I were to go shopping, I could search for spices,” for example. It doesn’t matter if the subject is singular or plural, or if it’s first, second, or third person. If you’re using the subjunctive mood, the grammatically correct past tense of to be is were.

Speech is always evolving, and the subjunctive mood is used far less extensively than it was in the past. And what’s more, much of the way we talk and write in everyday English isn’t what our old schoolteachers would wag the ruler at us as “grammatically correct.” But if you want to conform with those standards, use were when it comes to the past tense of to be.

Examples of were in a sentence

If you’re discussing things that are unreal or conditional, then use were: I were and he/she/it were. Here are some example sentences:

 

  • If I were in better shape, I would run in the race.
  • She took over the meeting as if she were the boss.
  • His father talked to him as though he were a child.

When to use was vs. were

To sum it all up, always use was for the past indicative first and third person singular. That goes for whether it’s a simple verb or auxiliary. “I was ready to watch the Auburn Tigers win the game,” and “He was watching number two score the winning touchdown.”

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For the past indicative second person and all plural forms, use were. “They were in the stadium,” and “You were standing the whole game.” Also use were for the hypothetical or fantastical subjunctive mood for both singular and plural forms, as in “If they were to bring back popcorn, I would eat it.”

There was vs. there were

Was and were are also used in some instances with the pronoun there. This pronoun introduces a sentence or clause in which the verb comes before its subject (or those instances where the verb has no complement). When the subject that follows is singular, use was: When I opened the fridge, I found there was no more milk left. When the subject that follows is plural, use were: When I opened the fridge, I found there were no more eggs left.

In the end, yes, you were technically correct when you noted that the class lyric “I wish I was a little bit taller” should have been “I wish I were a little bit taller.” But don’t fret if you get it technically wrong at times. Were may be formally correct, but because the subjunctive mood has largely fallen out of common use, was may slip into yours and others’ speech at times.

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