When to use ‘was’ versus ‘were’

was versus were
English can be difficult, especially when it comes to words that can be easily confused. A couple of examples would be who vs whom and further vs farther. Another combo that can get confusing is was vs were.

There are several reasons why you might be struggling to decide whether you should be using “was” or “were” in a sentence. The simplest of these is the conjugation of the singular and plural forms of the past tense of “to be.” While this can cause minor problems to those learning English as a second language as they study, first language English speakers usually have few problems with this. The most common cause of debate and confusion is the use of “were” instead of “was” in the subjunctive mood (We’ll explain that below if you aren’t sure what subjunctive mood is.). We’ll cover both past and subjunctive mood topics in this article, and you’ll soon see just how simple it all is.

Singular and Plural

As we’ve observed, this is the easiest of the choices you need to make, but it also gives rise to the problems that so many people have when they begin to use the subjunctive mood.

Singular: I was, he was, she was, it was – BUT you were. (Just to make things more fun!)

Plural: It’s always ‘were’, regardless of whether we’re talking about “they,” “we” or “you.” So far, so easy! But now we’ll examine how this relates to one of the most common errors in spoken or written English: the choice of “was” instead of “were” in the subjunctive mood.

If I were / was a rich man – the famous subjunctive mood

The subjunctive mood is used to describe or speculate on a hypothetical situation, and you’ll hear people using both ‘”was” and “were” in this context. But only one of these is correct. Whenever we’re talking about something that isn’t a reality at the moment, we discard “was” and choose “were” instead. It doesn’t matter whether we are referring to a single person or a group of people. As soon as we cross the border between reality and speculation, “were” is the only word to choose. For example

  • I was rich and I owned a house at the seaside.
  • If I were rich, I would have owned a house at the seaside.
  • He was the captain of the team and he chose a different strategy.
  • If he were captain of the team, he would have chosen a different strategy.

In each of the pairs of sentences above, the first one refers to something that actually happened in the past, and the word “was” is the correct choice. The second sentence is a wish or a speculation – it refers to an event that did not actually happen, and “were” is the correct choice.

  • They were the winning team, so they celebrated their victory.
  • If they were the winning team, they would celebrate their victory.

As we can see, the subjunctive mood doesn’t result in any change in word choice in this example. No matter how many people you are referring to, the subjunctive mood calls for the word “were.” If you’ve been prone to saying the incorrect “I wish I was,” “If he was” or “I wish she was” instead of the correct ‘I wish I were,” “If he were” or “I wish she were,” it will be easy to make the necessary adaptation and correct your grammar.

Look out for the subjunctive mood. As soon as something is a wish or a hypothetical (if) situation, you will always choose “were” over “was.”

It’s a common grammar mistake. In spoken as well as written English, you’ll find that just about everyone from plumbers to presidents is guilty of this mistake. Of course, when presidents make this error, those who know better will laugh at them, so if you’re hoping that what you say will be taken seriously, it’s worth learning when to use “were” instead of “was.” After all, once you understand the basic rules, it’s quite easy.

36 comments

  1. I understand it, but it still sounds wrong to me to use “were” with I and he and she.

    “If she was home, I’d go and play” sounds much better than “If she were home, I’d go play with her, but the latter is supposedly correct.

    1. This sure helps a lot to understand the difference even though it still sounds a bit wrong when saying it out loud. At least now I know how to use it correctly. At least I think I do enough to finally get some sleep…

  2. It is easy for me to understand why this would be confusing to a large number of people. I really don’t know the rules well, so I always play it by ear. If it sounds correct, then I’m usually right. I couldn’t decide whether to use “was” or “were” and that’s how I ended up at this article. It can get a bit confusing, but I understand the correct way to use both now. Thank you.

    1. Glad to hear the article could help you understand a bit better. That’s exactly what I hoped it would do. Good luck with all your writing!

  3. Thank you for this simple explanation between the difference of was and were. This was exactly what I was searching for when I type my question into the search engine. I think I have a better understanding of when to use the word “was” and when to use the word “were” now that I’ve read this.

    1. I’m happy to the article was able to help you understand the difference a bit better. Hopefully you can use the two words correctly in the future and it will soon become habit knowing which to use.

  4. Does it really matter? If a person understands what you mean to say, who cares if you use was or were? People are far too uptight about grammar and shouldn’t care as long as everyone understands. This is a big overreaction to make something more complicated than it should be — the only people who care are teachers so they can keep their jobs.

    1. It does matter, In fact, it matters a lot. I can write, “I enjy brekfast evryday” which you can probably figure out what I mean to say, but it looks terrible. There really is no difference when using “was” and “were” incorrectly. You really should care about grammar for exactly this reason.

    2. This seems like a lazy excuse not to use proper grammar or not wanting to study for an English test. The truth is, you will be judged by how you speak and write. Knowing the correct way to use verbs like was and were is important for this reason.

  5. I was going to go out tonight to have a lot of fun.
    If I were to go out tonight, I think I would have a lot of fun.

    I don’t understand why in these two sentences I use “was” for one of them and “were” for the other when they are both basically saying the exact same thing. Can someone explain this to me so it makes sense?

    1. Those two sentences have completely different meanings and are dramatically different from one another. You can’t really compare the two. Do you understand which one of the following two is correct?

      If I were to go out tonight, I think I would have a lot of fun.
      If I was to go out tonight, I think I would have a lot of fun.

      That would be a better comparison of whether or not you understand the difference of when to use “was” or “were”

  6. This is a great way to explain the two words. was and were are difficult. So many get it wrong I know because I am one of them. This helped a lot thank you for the post and also for the great explanation.

  7. You can seriously find an article on anything on the Internet. I mean, who would ever search for something like this? I’m scared just thinking about how I ended up here to read this…

    1. English is a confusing language. If you grew up speaking English you probably wouldn’t understand this, but trying to learn it as a second language is difficult.

    2. I think if you read through the comments, you will see a lot of different people have questions about which of these two to use.

  8. I understand the whole first person etc.., but when it comes to objects, what are the rules. For example: The man said the set of tires were returned. or is it, The man said the set of tires was returned. Is it was because it’s a set or is it were because they’re tires?

    1. It would be:

      The man said the set of tires was returned.
      or
      The man said the tires were returned.

      A set is singular so “was” is appropriate.

  9. Is it safe to say that if the sentence starts with “If I…” then it will always be “were” that comes next and not “was”? I’m just trying to make sure that I understand the difference between these two words correctly so I don’t make any mistakes.

    1. If you are speculating, which you are in a “what if…” sentence, then you use “were” and not “was” Was is used for the past tense. So, yes, you would be correct to use “were” when speculating with “if I…”

  10. Timing and transportation was everything…
    or
    Timing and transportation were everything…
    Editor says was and the writer says ‘were.’ Please help!

    1. This s the sentence in its entirety I think it’s ‘were’ please let me know. Thanks- Judy
      Doing these mandatory chores affected whether or not I would be on time for school; timing and transportation was everything.

      1. I would say “was” because the “timing and transportation” where you are thinking the plural comes from is actually a singular issue of being on time for school.

    2. I’m very unsatisfied with some practical, basic functional conflicts and ambiguity of English, likely the only language I will ever know. I dream we could do dramatically better if we ‘started over’ Idk. In this case maybe something to do with clear singular or plural state of last subject in the series?? I can only guess that. Cake and cookies were everywhere. Cookies and cake was everywhere. ?? Cookies, cake, and pretzels were everywhere.
      Cookies, pretzel, and cake was everywhere. ??
      And BTW I hate that its: You were there. He was there. stuff that!
      Also HATE that it’s ”Someone was shooting at me, THEY WERE crazy….
      And the even more objectionable…. What is wrong with that person? THEY don’t have THEIR priorities strait. Talk about your schizophrenic pronouns.

    1. This depends on how you are reading it. If you are assuming “time and day” as a singular event, then it is wasn’t, but if you are assuming time and day as separate pieces of information being given, then it’s weren’t. It depends on the context of the sentence.

    1. I would disagree that other languages are easy. There are some other languages that are much more difficult than English. That’s not to say that English isn’t difficult and there are points which are confusing such as the difference of was and were in certain situations, but other languages can have situations that are even more difficult and confusing. It comes with every language. There are always going to be some aspects of it that will be confusing and will take time to learn.

  11. Great,

    Thank you for this, I have been marked down for not proof reading my work emails due to this silly error.

    This makes more sense to me now as I have not needed to use the two words for years since school

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