[A note to the visiting reader: There's nothing idiosyncratic or unusual about making a distinction between "If I were" and "If I was." Countless speakers and writers make this distinction, and explanations of it can be found in numerous writing handbooks (the kind of book usually used in a college writing class). I've tried to make an explanation of the distinction that's engaging and memorable. Happy reading and writing.]
A reader asked in an e-mail if I could explain when to use "if I were" and "if I was." Here are some examples to make the difference clear:
"If I were" (the past subjunctive) is appropriate in stating conditions that are contrary to fact:
If I were a bell, I'd go ding dong ding dong ding. (Frank Loesser)Each of the above sentences states a condition that is not the case: I'm not a bell, not a carpenter, not a rich man.
If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway? (Tim Hardin)
If I were a rich man, [yadda, yadda, yadda]. (Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock)
"If I was" (the past indicative) is appropriate in stating conditions that are not contrary to fact. Here you might say that the truth or falsity of the condition is not certain:
Was I rude? I'm not sure that I really was. But if I was rude, I'm sorry.The was/were distinction can be tricky to get right. In that last sample sentence, was somehow sounds wrong to me, and if I were doing something other than writing this post, I'd probably choose were or recast the sentence:
If I was to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles.
If I train as a carpenter, I will get to wear safety goggles.Why, incidentally, did I write "if I were doing something other than writing this post"? Because the condition stated is contrary to fact: I am writing this post.
The most awful blurring of was/were probably occurs when people say "If I was you." "I," whoever I am, never was "you." Here's another song lyric, which I know from a Fats Waller recording, to help keep the was/were distinction clear:
If I were you, here's what I'd do:Update, July 17, 2011:
I'd stick to me my whole life through,
If I were you. (Buddy Bernier and Robert D. Emmerich)
One sample sentence in this post has continued to bug me: “If I was to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles.” Should the verb be was or were? Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (1965) supports the indicative was in such sentences:
Difficulties do arise, however, from making the unwarranted assumption that if always introduces a condition that is contrary to fact and thus should always be followed by a subjunctive. If may introduce clauses of supposition or concession, as well as conditions that are not true or are hypothetical, and in such clauses the verb is usually in the indicative, not the subjunctive, mood.A sample sentence from The Careful Writer: “The Egyptian declared that if there was more trouble the U.A.R. would ‘exterminate Israel.’”
More recently, the American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) also supports was:
Remember, just because the modal verb would appears in the main clause, this doesn’t mean that the verb in the if-clause must be in the subjunctive if the content of that clause is not presupposed to be false: If I was (not were) to accept their offer — which I’m still considering — I would have to start the new job on May 2.The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005) makes the same point, with a different sample sentence. Both AH volumes point out that many people dispense with any distinction between if I was and if I were. If I were you though, I wouldn’t go along with them.
Still more recently, Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) recommends the use of the subjunctive in contexts that involve supposition. Garner’s sample sentence: “if I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project.” It seems to me that the use of the subjunctive here might erase the useful distinction between supposition and what’s contrary to fact: if I were to go seems to suggest that the speaker has already decided not to do so. (Think of a politician refusing to step down: If I were to resign, I’d be betraying, &c.) Another sentence or two might be needed to clarify things: If I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project. But I can always get Fred to do that for me. So I’ll go.
When it comes to supposition and the subjunctive, there is no single answer. If one is considering whether to train as a carpenter, the wise choice, as I have suggested above, might be a sentence that avoids any appearance of error by keeping clear of was and were:
If I train as a carpenter, I will get to wear safety goggles.Reader, the choice is yours.
Other useful stuff
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences