My So-Called Subjunctive: Was vs. Were
Verbs in the English language can be infinitely tricky, what with our multitude of irregulars and often misleading vowel combinations, but they can also be infinitely beautiful, conjugated in ways that convey shades of subtle meaning.
Just like rebellious teenagers, verbs can contain a lot of emotion and like to spend time pondering their place and purpose in the universe. The English subjunctive is a “mood” which communicates doubt, hope, wishfulness, or the hypothetical.
One of the most distinct forms of the subjunctive mood is in the difference between “was” and “were.”
This is Angela. She is in love with Jordan Catalano, but he does not know she exists. If she writes in her diary, which would be the correct way to describe her love for him?
“I wish I was dating Jordan Catalano,” vs. “I wish I were dating Jordan Catalano.”
Here, the correct choice would be “I wish I were dating Jordan Catalano.” Because Angela is not actually dating him, but merely wishes to be, were expresses the hypothetical nature of the situation – the doubt that it is a thing that actually exists.
“If I was dating Jordan Catalano, I would be happy,” vs. “If I were dating Jordan Catalano, I would be happy.”
Again, Angela is not actually dating Jordan Catalano, but is expressing the wish/doubt/uncertainty inherent in the statement. Imagine it this way: if we take out the “if” from the sentence, it leaves us with “I was dating Jordan Catalano.” Because Angela had never been dating him, the implication of was on its own is incorrect, and were is necessary instead.
However, was also has a specific purpose. Examine the following:
“If Angela was in love with Jordan Catalano, I would know,” vs. “If Angela were in love with Jordan Catalano, I would know.”
Because Angela actually is in love with Jordan– because the sentence is expressing something that is hypothetically true or implied to be hypothetically true, was would be appropriate. The use of were in the second example implies to the listener that the fact of Angela being in love with Jordan is doubtful, uncertain, or unlikely to become a possibility.
Although its conscious use has fallen somewhat out of fashion, the use of were instead of was still communicates an important element of the unknown and uncertain… much like the fate of Angela’s heart.
—Andrea, peer tutor