Tuesday, June 17, 2014

If I were... Subjunctive mood.

When you grow up with a language you just know some things, without having to think about it. When you learn a new language, it's different. 

My English teachers way back when drilled me with tables like:

I  am
You  are
He, She, It  is
We  are
You  are
They  are


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

After a while it sticks and becomes natural.

So, why do I have such an urge to say, "If I were" or, "If she were?" According to the tables it should clearly be was, not were. Right?


My "were" in these types of sentences have been corrected by many editors in different situations. When it comes to fiction I generally go along with it. It's not that big a deal. However, the word were is the right form to use together with if. 

It shows a wish or thought that isn't true; a statement that doesn't form an established fact. It can also be about someone's state of mind, opinion, purpose, belief, desire, or intention. This is called subjunctive form.

For example, saying, "If he were a blue elephant" is correct, because the were indicates that something is out of the ordinary and not true.

Here are a couple of examples in present and past form.

Present indicative Present subjunctive
I own I own
You own You own
He, She, It owns He, She, It own
We own We own
You own You own
They own They own
Past indicative Past subjunctive
I was I were
You were You were
He, She, It was He, She, It were
We were We were
You were You were
They were They were

If you want to delve into this, here are some great resources:

  • The Oxford Dictionaries have a great explanation.
  • The Language Log elaborates on, "The 'were' form is often wrongly called a past subjunctive, but of course 'it were done' is not a past tense of 'it be done'.
  • Englishclub.com also elaborates on the subjunctive.

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