Regular Doses of Common Sense™

‘If I Were You,’ I’d Check Out This Grammar Rule

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My friend Mika suggested this week’s grammar topic: How do you know when to use was versus were in a sentence?

Should it be: “If I was a millionaire,” or “If I were a millionaire”? We’re talking about a common grammatical stumbling block with an intimidating title: “the past subjunctive case.”

Okay, forget you saw that title. That’s the first step to getting past the confusion, because, let’s face it: no one looks at a name like “the past subjunctive case” and then says, “Oh, yeah, this will be easy.”

But there’s a relatively easy, simplified way to look at the crux of the issue. Sure, like most elements of grammar, you can make it as complicated as you want, but this will at least get you started on the right path.

So here goes.

You’re standing around the watercooler at the office, marveling at the size of this week’s lottery jackpot and doing a little daydreaming with some of your co-workers. Caught up in the fantasy, you start to describe what to do if your bank account suddenly exploded with $312 gazillion.

Do you begin, “If I was a millionare” or should it be “If I were a millionaire”?

Did you buy a ticket for this particular drawing? If not, then it isn’t possible (at least, this go around), that you could be a gazillionaire. If you bought a ticket but the drawing hasn’t yet occurred, it still isn’t possible (at least, so far) that you are a gazillionaire. When it isn’t possible, you are projecting an unachievable scenario, so you use were. Most of the time, you also use were when you’re speaking in terms of something you wish for rather than something that’s real.

If you did buy a ticket and the drawing happened (but you don’t know the numbers or don’t have your ticket in front of you to check), then it is possible at that moment that you could be a millionaire. When it is possible, even if it’s unlikely, use was.

You mean that’s all there is to it? Pretty much.

But remember, you can get as complicated with grammar as you like: this is just a simplified way of looking at the basic question of was/were.

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