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I'm not a native english speaker, so even though I'm decently proficient at it, I don't really "know the rules" sometimes, and this is one that's been confusing me for a long time.

Which one is correct in each sentence?

If the movement [was/were] to continue uncorrected, the tower would one day topple.

If I [was/were] rich, I would buy a yacht.

NOTE: I care not only about the case of "I", but also "she", "them", "it", etc, as in the example of the tower. Would it be any different if instead of the tower, it'd be me who'd topple if uncorrected?

I'm pretty sure it's "were" in both cases. That's what they taught me, I think.
I started to doubt when I saw a lot of "was", but it sounded like the typical intentional mistake used "stylistically". ("If I was a rich girl...")

Then I saw it some more and thought it came down to an American/British English difference (I was taught British, in theory, and most of what I read is American).

But that tower sentence came straight from "The Guardian"...

When do you use was and when do you use were?

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3  
The basic answer is that the forms with "were" tend to be more old fashioned and formal. Many people use them always; many people never; and some use them only in formal contexts. –  Colin Fine Oct 10 '11 at 11:47
    
    
You don't actually need the subjunctive to convey the proper meaning here, because it is implied by the "would" in the main clause (which is good, because the subjunctive is identical to the indicative in all verbs except "be"). This use of the subjunctive seems to be slowly dying out. –  Peter Shor Nov 21 '11 at 13:18

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The grammatical rule, if you want to be strict, is that in subjunctive clauses you always use were, therefore all of the following examples are correct:

If I were you, I'd definitely think this through.
If she were to know what you did, she'd be so angry!

However, some people break this rule, to me for reasons unknown. Either they are unaware of it (insufficient grammar on their side), or they are being informal, or non-native speakers who were never taught the rule.

Just use were in all cases and you're fine.

Also note that as FumbleFingers has correctly mentioned:

It's generally accepted that use of the subjunctive is declining, so eventually it will disappear. Some publications will be ahead of the curve, and there's no reason why The Guardian shouldn't be one of them. As Colin says, many of us still make the formal/informal distinction, but increasingly this is seen as just a matter of style, rather than correctness.

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6  
Or to put it less tendentiously, many English speakers today have a grammar which does not include this one lone anomalous form "were". Some others use the form only in formal contexts and in set expressions such as "if I were you". –  Colin Fine Oct 10 '11 at 11:32
    
Thank you for your answer. What surprises me is that I then saw an "incorrect" sentence (the tower one) in a British newspaper, no less. I wouldn't have expected that :-) –  Daniel Magliola Oct 10 '11 at 12:07
    
@RiMMER: Your third example is correct, but essentially irrelevant in this context, since were is both the subjunctive and the simple past. Personally, I'd say it's not the subjunctive, since eventually that will inevitably be how it's seen by everyone once the subjunctive has completely disappeared! :) –  FumbleFingers Oct 10 '11 at 13:26
    
+1 for @FumbleFingers, maybe we should add what you said here to my answer, if you don't mind? You did a good point and I agree with it, feel free to add it to my answer. –  RiMMER Oct 10 '11 at 13:26
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@FumbleFingers. Confirmed by 'The Cambridge Guide to English Usage': 'The motivation for using the 'were-subjunctive' is stylistic rather than grammatical.' –  Barrie England Oct 10 '11 at 17:33

The subjunctive mood is used for hypothetical situations, such as wishes or conditions. The rule used to be bigger, and affected many verbs. It changed is/are to "be", was to "were" and dropped the -s from verbs. "...For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." "May he go to the devil." "Be he alive or be he dead..." "I wish I were a rich man."

Now, the only formation that is used is was -> were.

Don't overcorrect when simply talking about the past. "I don't know if I were there" = wrong. One clue is the use of a modal (would, could, should) following the "if" clause--then you know you're using the subjunctive.

I haven't found a systematic difference between British and American usage here, just a lot of mistakes. I think the subjunctive mood will be dead within 100 years.

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All your examples are commonly called subjunctive, but I think it's misleading to say that the subjunctive is used for hypothetical situations. This isn't hypothetical: "I move that the meeting be adjourned" And this is not the subjunctive but it is hypothetical: "I wish I could go to Paris" –  morphail Oct 11 '11 at 3:13
    
Interesting, thank you very much. I hadn't thought about/recognized the other changes the subjunctive applies. I don't care so much for the others, but I really like the was/were distinction, I do believe it's a useful one, and I'm really sorry to hear it's going away :-( Anyways, I now know I can continue writing the way I always have and it's correct. Thank you very much! –  Daniel Magliola Oct 11 '11 at 12:10
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The subjunctive construction still survives in sentences like "It is necessary that he be informed immediately." These seem in much less danger of dying out soon than the "were-subjunctive", which I suspect will be gone in 50 years. –  Peter Shor Nov 21 '11 at 13:40
    
@Peter: I was about to say "gone in minus 50 years" because I intuitively feel that nobody uses the 'were'-subjunctive in speech. BUt I checked Google Ngrams and trying all sorts of parameters there, it seems pretty consistent that AmE and BrE are about the same and 'if I were' occurs twice as often as 'if I was'. Crazy. –  Mitch Nov 21 '11 at 14:29
    
@Mitch: of course, the corpus in Google Ngrams is books, which are fairly formal written language. My impression also is that "was" is more common in speech. –  Peter Shor Nov 21 '11 at 15:27

Writers have been using "was" and "were" almost interchangeably for 300 years.

The difference is register: "were" is more formal.

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What is wrong with my answer? –  morphail Oct 27 '11 at 16:34

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