Word Choice – I Was Versus I Were

BizWritingTip reader: “Could you give us an update on when it is appropriate to use ‘I was’ versus ‘I were.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: “I was” is the normal past tense of the verb “to be.”


I was busy when you called. (past tense)
I was nominated head of the committee. (past passive tense)
I was editing the report when he called. (past progressive tense)

But …

In English, we also have a subjunctive mood. A subjunctive mood is used to communicate feelings such as wistfulness or imagination; things that aren’t real or true.

Therefore, when a sentence starts with “I wish,” “he wishes,” etc., you must use a subjunctive verb in the clause that follows. In other words, use “I were,” “he were,” and “you were.”

Examples (incorrect)

I wish I was able to attend.
I wish she was speaking instead of him.

Examples (correct)

I wish I were able to attend.
I wish she were speaking instead of him.

In addition, when a statement begins with the word “if” and is highly improbable or doubtful, the verb in the clause is treated as a subjunctive verb: to express present time, use the past tense; to express past time, use the past perfect tense.


If I were president of the company (but I am not), I would give us a raise. (present time)
If I had been asked earlier (but I wasn’t), I would have attended. (past time)

Remember the song in Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were a rich man.” Tevye may not have been wealthy, but he did know his grammar.