People have been asking why “If I were” and “If she were” are correct. How can were, a plural verb, be correct with I and she, singular subjects? And does the rule really apply in 21st-century business writing?
These correct sentences illustrate the rule:
- If Mike’s mother were alive, she would still be correcting his grammar.
- If the CEO were in the plant today, everyone would be nervous.
- If I were you, I would read this information about subjunctive verbs.
Those “if clauses” describe things that are contrary to fact. The subjunctive form were informs readers and listeners instantly that Mike’s mother is not living, the CEO is not in the plant today, and I am not you (this one the audience already knows, of course).
The verb form you might have expected in those sentences is the simple past tense was, but these sentence openers would be wrong for the sentences above:
- If Mike’s mother was alive. . . .
- If the CEO was in the plant today. . . .
- If I was you. . . .
The reason the past tense is wrong is that it does not indicate that something is contrary to fact. It just indicates that something is past and unknown, as was does in these sentences:
- If Mike’s mother was alive, she did not want anyone to know her whereabouts.
- If the CEO was in the plant today, it was only for a short visit.
- If I was you, we must have magically traded places!
As odd as the subjunctive may seem if you are not used to using it in “if clauses,” well-regarded reference manuals still promote it with no apologies. I checked these volumes on my bookshelf: The Gregg Reference Manual, The Associated Press Stylebook 2011, The Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and The American Heritage College Dictionary 4th Edition. Not one of them will let you off the hook. According to their rules, you must use the subjunctive form were if you want to speak and write correctly.
Test yourself with these sentences. Fill in the blank with were or was. Use were if the introductory clause expresses something that is contrary to fact. Use was for a past tense in which the facts are not known.
- If Abika _______ here, she would run an efficient meeting.
- If my father _______ here, I did not see him.
- If she _____ Chris, she would choose the University of Texas at Austin.
- If Bala _____ retired, he would spend more time travelling in Western Europe.
- If John ______ a Canadian citizen, we were not aware of that fact.
- “If I ______ a Rich Man” is sung by poor Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
- If Elizabeth Taylor ______ known for just one role, it would be Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- If it ______ raining, we would not be having such a great time camping.
- If it ______ raining, we did not even notice it.
In those nine sentences, I would use were in six of them. (My grammar and spelling checker flagged three of the six.) Do you agree?
- If Abika were here [she is not here]
- If my father was here [he may have been here]
- If she were Chris [she is not Chris]
- If Bala were retired [he is not retired]
- If John was a Canadian citizen [he may have been]
- “If I Were a Rich Man” [Tevye is not rich]
- If Elizabeth Taylor were known for just one role [she is known for many roles]
- If it were raining [it is not]
- If it was raining [it may have been raining]
If you were I, you would be finished writing this blog post.
Questions? Suggestions? Thoughts?