If I Were, If She Were: Using Subjunctive Verbs With “If”

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.

  1. If Abika _______ here, she would run an efficient meeting.
  2. If my father _______ here, I did not see him.
  3. If she _____ Chris, she would choose the University of Texas at Austin.
  4. If Bala _____ retired, he would spend more time travelling in Western Europe.
  5. If John ______ a Canadian citizen, we were not aware of that fact.
  6. "If I ______ a Rich Man" is sung by poor Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
  7. If Elizabeth Taylor ______ known for just one role, it would be Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  8. If it ______ raining, we would not be having such a great time camping.
  9. 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?

  1. If Abika were here [she is not here] 
  2. If my father was here [he may have been here] 
  3. If she were Chris [she is not Chris]
  4. If Bala were retired [he is not retired]
  5. If John was a Canadian citizen [he may have been]
  6. "If I Were a Rich Man" [Tevye is not rich]
  7. If Elizabeth Taylor were known for just one role [she is known for many roles]
  8. If it were raining [it is not]
  9. If it was raining [it may have been raining]

If you were I, you would be finished writing this blog post.

Questions? Suggestions? Thoughts?

Lynn
Syntax Training

24 COMMENTS

  1. It really helps me to know more about the subjunctive form even English is not my native language. Thanks, Lynn.

  2. I have been cringing at TV commercials using “what if there were a place…” I am glad, and a little humbled, to know that I am wrong. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for pulling this one out of the attic and bringing it to my attention. I never really thought about it because I don’t have to use the subjunctive at work on technical documents. But if I were editing fiction, I would now know how to use the subjunctive!

  4. Hi, Val. Before writing about this topic, I checked at least five reference books. I was surprised that none of them had softened on the rule. Like you, I thought this subjunctive form might be something dusty I was dragging out of the attic. But it seems we still need to pay attention to it.

    I see errors involving the subjunctive form in sample emails, proposals, and other documents clients send me. Nevertheless, I understand how it might not come up in technical writing.

    As always, I apppreciate your comments.

    Lynn

  5. I’m feeling a little skeptical about this one. I can understand (maybe) following this rule if you are a technical writer, but this really feels like an outdated rule.

    Languages evolve over time and I think this is an example. It’s just like ending sentences with prepositions.

    But then again, I write in a very casual style for website visitors. I keep my sentences short and break up paragraphs almost at random just to avoid big blocks of text.

  6. Thank you for the informative post. I have noticed this problem when editing business writing in Australia.

    Our main style guide has softened the rules on this and states: “In Australia the ‘were’ subjunctive is falling into disuse, replaced by the ‘was’ for ordinary purposes. This then makes the ‘were’ subjunctive a distinctly formal choice in terms of style.”

    I still apply the formal style, however, when editing business writing.

  7. Hi, Wes. I too write in a casual style at times. Yet I cannot bring myself to write “If I was you.” The subjunctive has been in my blood too long.

    Style guides do evolve, as language does. Their editors make decisions carefully though, so they are usually years behind what we see and hear in business. I think that’s a good thing.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  8. This is extremely helpful for me; it’s always caused me problems.

    I agree with your answer for number 6, but differ with the reasoning. I would use “Were” because it’s in the title of the song and you’re using it as a title. If the title were, “If I Was A Rich Man” the title would be grammatically incorrect, but should still be quoted accurately.
    Or am I wrong about that?

  9. Hi, Randy. You are not wrong.

    I chose the song because many people are familiar with the title, which uses a subjunctive verb correctly. I am hoping the title will help readers remember the subjunctive form.

    Lynn

  10. Hi Lynn,
    Thank you for this post. It’s the best summary of the confusing “If I were you” subjunctive-verb-with-if explanation I have read. I think your explanation is more clear than Gregg or AP 😉
    Mary

  11. Thank your for this post.

    How about “I wish she was/were….”? English is not my native language but I think I was told in school that “I wish she were” is correct, it also sounds better to me. The other form seems to be more common though.

    “I wish she were” – 3.7 million Google hits
    “I wish she was” – 8.6 million Google hits

  12. Hi Lynn,

    Thank you for this informative post.
    Can I ask you if the following sentence is correct:

    “If I were to live in a flat, I would have to give up my dog!”

    “If I lived in a flat, I would have to give up my dog!” (This correct because it is the second conditional).

    Thank you.

    N

  13. Why be so complicated with this subjunctive business?? Who cares and who thought this up ?? I think the word ‘was’ will never be out of style. You can’t go wrong using it 98% of the time. Talk about picky, picky.
    If I ‘was’ there..
    If she ‘was’ there…
    These sound perfectly acceptable.

  14. Hi, Cheryl. You can certainly get by with “was” in most situations. But there can be times when knowing the subjunctive rule and following it would be helpful.

    These days many jobs require strong communication skills. The ability to use the subjunctive form might be one of them.

    I didn’t answer your opening questions because I believe they are rhetorical questions rather than ones that require answers. I hope my assumption is correct.

    Lynn

  15. Hey Lynn,

    Thanks for this. How about ‘Even if … ‘? Even if Bala wasn’t/weren’t retired, he would spend more time travelling in Western Europe.

    This is assuming that Bala IS retired, correct? So the right answer is ‘weren’t’?

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