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“If I was” or “If I were”. Which is more common, and which is correct?

Is this correct grammar?

What if there was a Stack Overflow on…

Shouldn't it be "what if there were a Stack Overflow on…"?

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Feb 9 '12 at 16:25

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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when all else fails, use a picture of a cat –  Kyle Cronin Sep 7 '10 at 22:33
    
@Kyle: Thanks for the link. Here I am, looking for a reference in a paper book. How embarrassing. :) –  Bill the Lizard Sep 7 '10 at 22:40
    
@Kyle, thanks for the link. How authoritative is that site? –  jjnguy Sep 7 '10 at 22:43
    
@Justin Not sure, it's just something I found Googling. The author seems know her stuff though - she's a Master's student and a tutor at her alma mater –  Kyle Cronin Sep 7 '10 at 22:47
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@Shinto. The fundamental question is asking for a different answer. I'm not interested in which is more common. I wanna know which one is correct. –  jjnguy Sep 8 '10 at 3:36

6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Prescriptively, you're correct, this should be were since this is being expressed with the subjunctive mood. Descriptively, I think you'll find both in the wild. In informal speech, most people I know would prefer was in this case (and those that don't are sticklers for the subjunctive). I do think that you are much more likely to see were written though, especially in formal writing. Either form is correct, and the subjunctive forms are far from dead.

A more interesting question, I think, is whether or not the subjunctive mood is still being used and if the two forms have simply collapsed together. Is this a meaningful distinction? How could this be tested?

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"WERE" because it is the past subjunctive of "to be". It's an oversight by the copy-editor. It's not the biggest deal in the world since the verb "to be" is the only verb in Modern English wherein the difference is obvious, although, if one WANT to speak very formal, correct English, stick with the subjunctive.

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Not a native speaker, but indeed it is a conditional and therefore "were" should be used. However, I hear the incorrect form more often than the correct one, so I guess that "was" is a colloquial, albeit grammatically incorrect form.

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From what I've come to know about this site, I believe it is only a matter of time that someone will point out (rather persuasively too) that neither form is, in fact, grammatically incorrect. :-) –  Jonik Sep 7 '10 at 23:34
    
I think this is the answer. See also Common Errors in English Usage. –  mmyers Sep 8 '10 at 13:02
    
I'd feel more comfortable labeling this as the subjunctive mood. This is part of a speculative phrase, and is the dependent clause of the main clause, which would be in the conditional mood. Though I've rarely heard English described as having a conditional mood. –  Charlie Sep 9 '10 at 1:13

I think we need only look at the copy-editor of this book's. Who the hell allowed "was" to be put there instead of "were"? I noticed it right away. "What if there were a stack overflow on..." because it is not true. It's a condition that is contrary-to-fact. If it were talking about something true that had occurred in the past, then "was" would be appropriate, but the "what if" automatically triggers a condition so it's in definite need of the subjunctive.

Probably the biggest problem with the "were" past subjunctive form is the fact that its present form is "be", but most people don't say it that way.

"What if there be a stack overflow on..." is the stiffly formal way of stating something that is possible but unknown. Most people in modern English would replace it with "is" nowadays, but we still say "if truth be told", "whether it be", "if need be" and so on.

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Why do people keep making the ludicrous suggestion that the subjunctive 'were' is correct. It's not correct, it's simply one choice that English speakers have. Allowed, it's more formal, but more formal also doesn't mean correct, it simply means more formal. What's so important about trying to keep this one form distinct when it already clearly isn'tI, hasn't been for centuries. Why is there no one making the case for all the other subjunctive forms that have gone by the way? –  Dan Apr 20 '11 at 5:15

Since that's proposing a hypothetical situation, yes it should be were.

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Hmm. If this ("was is for things that could be true but aren't, and were is for things that could never be true") holds any truth, then was is better, right? (The point of the ad being that it is possible to have an SE for anything.) –  Jonik Sep 7 '10 at 23:21

"Was" is the indicative, "were" is a subjunctive. Since it's a hypothetical, it should properly be "were". But the subjunctive is effectively deprecated in English, so I expect that "was" is perfectly acceptable.

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