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Grammar: Was vs. Were, Fantasy or Reality?

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Let’s talk about moods. No, not my mood, or your mood, but a grammatical mood.

Who knew grammar had moods, right? Well, it does. The mood we’re going to look at here affects verbs and is called the subjunctive.

One of the most common verbs that takes on a subjunctive mood is “to be.” Let’s focus on one specific form of “to be”: “was” vs. “were.” When you are stating a fact, you use “was.” But if you’re going to express a state of unreality (a wish, an emotion, a possibility, a doubt, etc.), you use “were.”

EXAMPLE: She was as smart as her friend. (This is a fact.)

EXAMPLE: She wished she were as smart as her friend. (This is not reality, just something that she’d like to be true.)

Because this is a somewhat subtle distinction, it can be tricky to get it right. Fortunately, Broadway theatre has a great way to help you remember: Fiddler on the Roof. The story – to oversimplify – is about poor Jews in Russia, struggling to survive and thrive. The main character is Tevye, who is the father of five daughters.

Tevye sings many songs in the musical, but perhaps his most famous song is about how he wishes he had more money, and how much better life would be if he weren’t so poor. Everyone, sing along now! (Haven’t heard the song? You can listen to it here.)

EXAMPLE: “If I were a rich man…”

He’s imagining what life would be like – this is fantasy, not reality. So the next time you’re trying to remember “was” vs. “were,” just remember Tevye!

Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction. Rachel also works as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. Learn more at www.rachelmichaels.com.

  1. Lisa M. Scuderi-Burkimsher says:

    Glad I read this article. True “was.” Fantasy, non reality “were.”

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