Subjunctive vs. Indicative Mood ("If I Was" or "If I Were"?)

Q: Could you explain the difference between the indicative mood and the subjunctive mood, and when to use the subjunctive mood? It’s so seldom used correctly that it leaves me scratching my head. When in doubt, should I err with “If I was” or “If I were”?
—Lori McRae

A: Statements of fact require the indicative mood. The indicative verb form follows the usual grammar rules: singular noun, singular verb; plural noun, plural verb. He was president. She owns garden gnomes.

The subjunctive mood is used to express any hypothetical wish, suggestion, situation or condition instead of stating a fact. If I were president—which I’m not—I’d give garden gnomes the right to vote.

As you can see, the verb form changes for subjunctive sentences. Typically, a singular noun or pronoun, such as “I,” “he” or “she,” would require a singular verb like “was,” but the subjunctive mood has atypical verb forms (which are vestiges of Old English). The present tense of the subjunctive uses only the base form of the verb—I demanded that I be switched to a class with less rigorous standards. The past tense of the subjunctive has the same forms as the indicative except for the verb “to be,” which uses “were” regardless of the number of the subject. I wish I were able to climb down chimneys like Santa. But if Santa were here, he’d envy my 32-inch waist.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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6 thoughts on “Subjunctive vs. Indicative Mood ("If I Was" or "If I Were"?)

  1. lucian782

    I have a similar question to Steven. There surely have to be exceptions in which “if” requires was and not were.
    For example: if it was raining yesterday, I slept through it.
    You are supposing something that may be true and is not necessarily contradicting a fact. Was or were?

  2. Jeremy Morton

    Steve:

    No; if something is not a statement of fact, you ALWAYS use the subjunctive. Joe Biden’s being here is purely hypothetical.

    Correct:
    If Joe Biden *were* here, he’d do his impression of Elmo.

    Note that the beginning of your sentence actually does mean something, but means something different:

    If Joe Biden *was* here… (we’d have heard him)

    The ‘was’ there is actually functioning as a past tense subjunctive, giving a conditional as to Joe Biden PREVIOUSLY being here – in the past. But it’s not questioning the idea of him being here in the present.

  3. Steve Roiphe

    Thanks for the explanation. I had read someplace, though, that the subjunctive can be a little trickier. That is, if the sentence is about something that isn’t, but that could possibly be, it’s preferable (or even necessary?) to use the indicative; whereas if it’s about something that could not happen or would be highly unlikely to happen, then it would take the subjunctive. For example:

    If Joe Biden was here, he’d do his impression of Elmo.

    v.

    If Abe Lincoln were here, he’d do his impression of Elmo.

    Is this correct?
    Thanks again.

  4. susie sullivan

    Very clear explanation–thanks! Now care to tackle "less than 10 items" and "if i would’ve known…" and "her and cheryl went to the store." and a host of other common errors? american english is surely "evolving" and we prescriptives need to go with the flow!

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