English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I saw that there were already examples on this, but I didn't find any specific enough. My problem is this sentence:

If there were anything that he didn't want, it was to hurt me.

I previously had the sentence written as:

If there was anything that he didn't want, it was to hurt me.

But both seem a little awkward to me.

share|improve this question

closed as off-topic by David M, MrHen, MετάEd, RyeɃreḁd, Mari-Lou A Mar 6 '14 at 8:40

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. A list of these references can be found here: List of general references" – David M, MrHen, RyeɃreḁd, Mari-Lou A
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Past tense (was) required here. Compare "If there was one thing he really wanted to avoid, it was hurting me." – Edwin Ashworth Mar 5 '14 at 20:12
Even a present tense can be used here: “If there is anything he didn’t want, it was to hurt me”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 5 '14 at 20:28
The only problem is that the sentence is in a short story that's written in past tense, and while I was changing everything to past tense I ran into this problem. Sorry, I should have specified! – Rachel Mar 5 '14 at 20:30
Writing advice is out of scope for this site. Similar questions might be on topic here, but this question is unlikely to be of any use to future visitors as it depends on a unique context. – MετάEd Mar 5 '14 at 23:53
up vote 6 down vote accepted

"Were" would be subjunctive, expressing a condition contrary to fact ("If there were anything that he didn't want [but there wasn't anything that he didn't want]"); "was" would be a simple condition. So you want "was" here.

share|improve this answer

Slightly off-topic, but I think it's the "anything" that makes the sentence a little awkward. Maybe "one thing" would be better.

share|improve this answer

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.