General Writing and Grammar Help/Was/were


I see that you've been nominated as volunteer of the month many times. I am also a volunteer with Allexperts in the nursing and medical field. Anyway even though I'm a college graduate I'm having a difficult time deciding when to put in "was & were". Ex: He was nice. Or, if he were nicer. These are just examples. Do you see what I'm saying? I know it's a simple question but could you offer me a rule  of grammar so that I would be able to discern when to put in was and when to use were? I would appreciate it so much-from one volunteer to another!

Dear Patricia:

You are probably wondering what kind of doctor has appointments on Sunday afternoon.  I was in a hurry, so I didn't explain.  He is actually my dentist -- the best I have ever had.  A few days ago, he re-bonded a tooth that is part of a bridge.  Last night, the tooth became loose; this morning is was barely hanging in place. I called his home phone, and he told me to get to his office.  I am retired now, but a few years ago, I had a 6:00 a.m. appointment with him!


Here's when you use the subjunctive mood ["were" instead of "was"]:

NOTE:  I have taken much of the following from "Hodges' Harbrace Handbook," by John Hodges.  It has been reprinted many times.  I am using the 14th edition.  If you ever need a grammar book that covers EVERYTHING in plain language, I recommend it.

First, there are three kinds of MOOD in the English language:

Indicative [general statement] -- Dannice calls me every day.

Imperative [an order or command] -- Call me every day, Dannice!

Subjunctive [a request or hypothetical situation[ -- It is important that Dannice call me every day.  

The subjunctive is used for three types of situation:

1.  After "that" with verbs suggesting a request, recommendation, or a demand.

EXAMPLES:  I demand that the parking ticket BE voided.
I suggested that she MOVE to a new apartment.
The committee requested that we ADJOURN.

[NOTE: The relative pronoun "that" should always be used.  The verb is not the same form as it would be in an indicative sentence.  For instance, we usually say "she moves."  In the subjunctive, we say "that she move."

2.  To express wishes or a hypothetical, highly improbable, or contrary-to-fact condition in IF or AS IF clauses.


I wish I WERE in Ashville.
If I WERE you, I'd accept the offer.
Eat as if every meal WERE your last.

*** Patricia, the second usage is the most prominent.  We often express our desires or wishes.
Sometimes we state "wishful" conditions that are not true and cannot be true; they are statement that are contrary to face.  "If I were the Queen of England . . . . "  This partial sentence may be a wish, but it is certainly NOT a statement of fact.  If you know the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," you will recall Tevye's famous soliloquy:  "If I WERE a rich man . . . . "

*** In your original question, you used the words "if he WERE nicer."  Usually, the pronoun "he" requires the singular verb "was," but not in this case.  You are using the subjunctive mood, whether you know its name or not.  The fact IS that he is NOT nice.  "If he WERE nicer" is a statement contrary-to-fact.

3.  As HAD rather than WOULD HAVE in clauses that being with IF and that express an imagined condition.  [This one is very similar to #2].

If he HAD arrived earlier, he wouldn't have lost the sale.
HAD he arrived earlier, he wouldn't have lost the sale.

*** The condition is "imagined," because he actually did NOT arrive earlier.  

*** Back to your original question -- Test the words to see if they are stating a fact OR stating a wish.  If Mary were pleasant toward other people, she would not be friendless.    By saying, "If Mary were," we are declaring that Mary is NOT a pleasant person.

*** Patricia, I always like to include some good references, especially when there is a "problem" like the one you have.  I would wager that at least 80% of the people have no idea what the "subjunctive" is.  In fact, this "mood" is gradually disappearing from the language, because of its terrible usage by too many people.

I suggest the follow sites.  The last two are FUN.  [Don't worry.  The answers are given.]

Good luck, fellow volunteer.

Ted Nesbitt



General Writing and Grammar Help

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Ted Nesbitt


I am the bibliographic instruction and reference librarian at a public college. Some members of the English department recommend me to their students. I offer assistance in grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and paragraph development. My master`s thesis concerns William Faulkner`s tragic novels. I formerly taught advanced placement English at two schools in the Philadelphia area.


I have been one of the highest-ranked volunteers in this category for more than a decade.

B. A. and M. A in English; MSIS in Library & Information Sciences; graduate study in philosophy

©2016 All rights reserved.