Was vs. Were: What’s The Difference?

Do the was vs. were grammar rules trip you up? Read this guide to learn to keep them straight. 

The verb “to be” is one of the more confusing conjugations in English. This irregular verb has many uses, not only as a helping verb but also as a state of being a verb. Its past tense forms, was and were, are, perhaps, some of the more confusing.

As you strive to write with proper English grammar, getting were vs. was right is essential. Thankfully, there are several was vs. were grammar rules that can help you keep these straight.

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Was vs. Were: The Difference Between Two Past Tense Forms

Was vs. Were grammar rules
The difference between the two is not the meaning but when they get used

Both “was” and “were” are the past tense forms of the verb “to be.” The difference between the two is not the meaning but when they get used.

The past subjective verb always requires the word “were.” The past indicative form of the verb uses “was” or “were” based on the subject and its number.

Though this rule seems simple, it can be harder to decipher in practice. Taking a closer look is helpful.

When to Use “Was”

Was has two primary uses: the past tense indicative helping verb in the past continuous tense. In both instances, you use “was” with a singular subject.

“Was” as the Past Tense Indicative

“Was” is the past tense indicative form of the verb. It is the correct choice for first-person singular and third-person singular subjects. For example:

  • I was
  • He/she/it was

The proper time to use past indicative tense is when you talk about real and known situations.

  • I was at the dance last night.

In the above sentence, “was” indicates that the event happened and the speaker attended, as a fact.

“Was” as a Helping Verb

You also will use “was” as the helping or auxiliary verb with a singular subject when you make the past continuous tense of the verb. Here is an example:

  • I was dancing all night long.

In this sentence, “was” is the helping verb for the verb “dancing,” showing an ongoing action that occurred at the dance last night.

Proper Use of “Were”

The word “were” is the past tense form of the verb “to be” used with plural subjects and second-person pronouns. It also shows up with the past indicative and as a helping verb for the past continuous, but with plural subjects. However, it has another use, and that is the subjunctive mood.

“Were” as the Past Tense Indicative

Using “were” as the past indicative tense functions similarly to “was,” but with plural nouns and pronouns. You will also choose this verb conjugation for the second person pronoun “you.” For example:

  • We were
  • They were
  • You were

Again, these sentences show actions that occurred, as in:

  • The kids were ready to leave for school early.

“Were” as a Helping Verb

“Were” can also be a helping or auxiliary verb in the past continuous tense. Here is an example:

  • The grandparents were going to surprise their grandchild with their visit.

“Were” with the Subjunctive Mood

The indicative tense is about things that are real and known. The subjunctive mood is the opposite. This talks about conditional or unreal situations.

You would use the subjunctive mood to discuss things you hope for or dream about. In the play Fiddler on the Roof, one of the famous songs has this line:

  • “If I were a rich man . . . “

The rest of the song talks about his dreams for the hypothetical situation of being a wealthy individual. You also use the subjunctive tense to talk about things the speaker hopes or plans to do but may or may not happen, as in:

  • If he were to go to college, he would major in English.

Even though “I” is the first person singular and “he” is the third person singular, because these sentences use the subjunctive mood, the verb “were” is correct.

A key that tells you that you are using the subjunctive mood is the word “if.” If the phrase or sentence starts with “if,” you will usually use “were,” regardless of whether the subject is plural or singular. The word “if” signals the hypothetical statement that requires the verb “were.”

Evolving Language and Subjunctive Mood

English as a spoken language is always evolving. Sometimes, something will sound right when spoken that is technically wrong according to grammar rules. The subjunctive mood is one of these rules.

For instance, it would technically be grammatically incorrect to say:

  • I wish I was rich.

However, few people would notice this, and most people would think you were using the word correctly. For spoken English, this mistake is acceptable. If you are writing this sentence in formal work, use the correct verb:

  • I wish I were rich.

Though English grammar rules require “were” for the subjunctive mood, this structure is rarely used in spoken English, and it is becoming commonly acceptable to match the verb to the subject in number. However, using “were” for subjunctive mood is still the preferred choice for written English.

There Was, and There Were

One interesting instance where English speakers and writers can face confusion with was vs. were is when the words follow the pronoun “there.” For example:

There was a strange smell in the house when we came home from vacation.

In sentences that need the past tense of the verb “to be” but start with “there,” the sentence’s subject follows the verb. You still need the right subject-verb agreement.

  • When we opened the pantry, we found that there was a bag of spoiled potatoes in it. (The plural subject “potatoes” requires the plural past tense “were.”)
  • There was no other item that could be the source of the smell. (The singular subject “item” requires the singular past tense “was.”)

For sentences that use this structure, look further in the sentence to find the subject so you can choose the correct verb form.

A Final Word on Was vs. Were Grammar Rules

Was vs. were are two words that you can keep straight if you remember some basic rules. For simple past tense or auxiliary verb uses, use “was” for the first person and third person singular, and “were” for all plural subjects and second person subjects.

The subjunctive mood typically shows using “if,” use “were” even for singular subjects.

If the sentence or phrase starts with “there,” find the subject later in the sentence and match the verb form to the subject.

FAQs About Was vs. Were Grammar Rules

How can you remember to use “was” or “were” correctly?

Use the word “was” with singular subjects in the first or third person when you need to use “to be” as a past-tense verb. Use “were” for plural subjects and second-person subjects. If you write about a hypothetical situation using the subjunctive mood, often shown with the word “if” to start the sentence, use “were.”

Is it “I was” or “I were?”

In most sentences, you will say, “I was.” However, if the sentence starts with “if” or talks about a wish or a hypothetical situation, you are writing in the subjunctive mood. In this case, you would say “I were”

If you still need help, our guide to grammar and punctuation explains more.

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