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How to Use “Were” vs. “Was” Correctly?

The primary difference is that “was” is used in the first person and third person singular, which includes “I,” “he,” “she,” or “it.”

Ronny Okumu
Ronny Okumu

When studying English, you’ll notice that the verb “to be” takes different forms, such as was and were when talking about the present or the past. For instance, when the subject is “you,” we can use the phrase “you were” as the past tense of the verb to be.

Similarly, when the subject is “I,” we almost only have one way to form the past tense of the be-verb, which is “I was.” Still, there are times when we need to use I were and not I was to form the past tense of the be-verb (to be).

You are likely to hear a native English speaker saying something like, “I wish I were a bird” or “if I were a bird,” and not “I wish I was a bird” or “if I were a bird.”

If I were you, I would stick around to know when to use was and were in your conversations or writings.

Differences between “were” and “was” with examples

If you are just starting with English, then know that “was” or “were” are past tenses of, or come from, the verb to be. We often hear people use these words daily, so it’s difficult to know which is correct.

I had problems choosing between “were” and “was” during my first English lessons. But I later learned that the answer had something to do with what my native English tutor called the subjunctive mood. I’ll tell you more about it below.

The difference between “was” and “were”: The primary difference is that “was” is used in the first person and third person singular, which includes “I,” “he,” “she,” or “it.” Meanwhile, the verb were is used in the plural and in the second person singular, which includes “you,” “we,” “your,” or “yours.”

So, how do we correctly use “I wish I was” or “I wish I were” English phrases? Let’s find out below.

Using “I wish I were” correctly

“I wish I were” is an English sentence structure that you can use to express a wish, or in other words, a desire. The wish or desire could be potentially possible but is often impossible or unreal.

We simply just think about and express our wishes or desires for a situation that was true in the future or even in the present. The phrase “I wish I were” forms the so-called subjunctive mood in English.

It is used to express something desired or wished for but is not immediately possible in the present or even in the near future.

Instead of using “was” in this English grammar structure, we go with “were” because we’re not talking about the past but rather a desire or a wish in the present or future that we know is impossible. For instance, a desire for a hypothetical wish isn’t the same as a birthday wish.

For example:

  • I wish I were cleverer.
  • I wish I were shorter (or taller).
  • I wish I were 30 years younger (or older).
  • I wish I were with her now.

Using “I wish I was” correctly

Although we mostly find ourselves using it in our writing and communications, you would also agree that “I wish I was” is often incorrect. Everyone will understand what you mean if, let’s assume, you write something like:

  • I wish I was cleverer.
  • I wish I was there.

But the verb “was” should be used when talking about past situations or events that you desired to be true. For example:

  • I wish I was cleverer when I was in high school.
  • I wish I was there when Johnny was performing.

You can tell from these examples that I am talking about a past and a wish in the past, not a wish in the present.

What’s the Meaning of Subjunctive Mood?

Briefly, the term “subjunctive mood” refers to a verb we use for hypothetical or unreal statements. It’s typically made up of “I were,” “she were,” “it were,” “they were,” and so on. People usually use this form when they are being wishful.

This means that sentences that use the verb “were” are not true; they don’t describe reality. Let me explain.

Some sentences would talk about things one wished would happen. And some others, such as this example: “If Diane were smarter, she could pass her college tests,” speak hypothetically. Likewise, an example such as “Diane is acting as if she were the one in charge” is a good example of an unreal statement. I hope you enjoyed learning how to use was vs. were just as much as I enjoyed telling you about them.

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Ronny Okumu

I'm Ronny Okumu with over 7 years of professional writing. Learning new things is something I truly enjoy. And if I meet a new topic, I just spend some time researching until I can write about it.

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