Grammar Tip – If I Was or If I Were

Antonio’s question: “In last week’s Biztip you said, ‘If I was writing a report or a formal letter ….’ English is my second language, but I clearly remember being taught that in this kind of structure I should use ‘were’ versus ‘was.’  I believe it should be ‘if I were writing an email ….’ Have the rules changed?”

BizWritingTip response: Wow. That sentence certainly caused a flurry of emails. Here is the rule. When a clause states a condition that is possible or likely, the verb does not require any special treatment. That is why I wrote: “If I was writing ….”

If the condition is improbable, then you would say “if I were.” This verb form is called the subjunctive mood. The most famous use of the subjunctive mood is in the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof. The hero, Tevye, sings “If I Were a Rich Man.” The whole song is about wishful thinking. He is definitely not wealthy.

Note: The subjunctive mood is not often used in North American English today.

2 replies
  1. some good extensions for you
    some good extensions for you says:

    Great Share! Am I allowed to just say what a relief to seek out somebody that actually knows what they are speaking about on the net.

  2. Carlo
    Carlo says:

    Jane, you are right, that is a subjunctive that should always be used when there is a condition like: if I were king I would ….
    Unfortunately, as happen in most of the spoken languages, people tend to oversimplify and in the end the risk is that they completely forget the real language.


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