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My question of whether to use if I was or if I were. Which one is incorrect or nonstandard?

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It's interesting to note that, although both "if I were" and "if I was" are descriptively correct in subjunctive statements (though "if I were" may be considered more "proper"), only the former allows conditional inversion: "Were I to win the lottery, I would buy a private island" is fine, but you'll never hear anyone say "Was I to win the lottery, I would buy a private island" (even though you might hear someone say "If I was to win the lottery, I would buy a private island"). –  grautur Jun 17 '11 at 6:05
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7 Answers

up vote 44 down vote accepted

When in doubt, always use the subjunctive mood:

If I were you...

It will make you sound smarter and it is technically correct since "the subjunctive mood is used to express a wish or possible situation that is currently not true."

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"Technically correct" = proper Standard English. (Linguistically speaking, a growing loss of overt subjunctive mood inflection would not be considered a speech error.) –  Kosmonaut Apr 2 '11 at 14:25
    
+1 for using the word "subjunctive" which I miss hearing in discussions of prescriptive English grammar. –  msanford Apr 18 '11 at 23:36
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As @Kosmonaut mentions, I think this answer should note that it's somewhat prescriptivist in nature, in that for many native English speakers, "If I was..." sounds fine and is often used in subjunctive statements (especially, perhaps, in speech). –  grautur Jun 17 '11 at 5:57
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Well, "if I was" can be valid for the past, I guess.

If I was wrong, please forgive me.

That aside, I think one of the other answers is right that in British English — at least spoken — both are acceptable and probably equally common. (The 'were' version sounds more 'educated'.)

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I don't think it's just that "if I was" can be valid for the past -- "If I were wrong, please forgive me" sounds totally ungrammatical to me. (Am I alone in this...?) –  grautur Jun 17 '11 at 6:03
    
"If I were wrong, please forgive me" is not an apology. It's saying that I was right. –  Peter Shor Dec 9 '12 at 20:05
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The rule that I was taught is that was is for things that could be true but aren't, and were is for things that could never be true.

So, if I was an airline pilot is OK because conceivably I could retrain as a pilot, if I wanted.

But if I were you is right because I will never be you.

The rule you were taught is wrong, Daniel.

The few subjunctive forms that are left can all be stated in other fashions using language that isn't subjunctive in form. We use lexical verbs to state subjunctive/contrary to fact situations all the time.

If I lived in Bangkok, ... // If I had a million dollars, ... // If I hadn't been born, ... .

Just as we can use the past time FORM of lexical verbs to describe contrary to fact situations, so too we can use 'was'. It's not as formal as the subjunctive form 'were' but it means the same thing.

There's not a speaker of English anywhere who thinks that "If I was you" means that the speaker is saying "I am you".

"If I were you" means the same thing as "If I was you". They both entail that I am not you.

Of course, we can and do use 'was' to state "allowing that that's true,

If she was at the party, she sure was quiet.

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It's if I were for hypothetical in the present or future and if I was when talking about something presumed true in the PAST. "IF" then means something likened to "since".

If I were class president, I would represent our class very well for the next four years.

If I was at the party last night, I don't remember.

It's an old, residual rule from the days of yore when English verbs conjugated differently for person and singular/plural in both the past and present tense indicative and subjunctive. While I may not have enough knowledge on Old and Middle English, I can show you the conjugation for to do for the 2nd person singular form of "thou" in Early Modern English:

present indicative - thou dost
present subjunctive - thou do
past indicative - thou didst
past subjunctive - thou did

It's why it should be "if I be" for things possible and one could still say it. We see "if truth be told" and "whether it be" and others, all residual subjunctives from the days of Chaucer and even Shakespeare wherein it was already disappearing. In Modern English, the past tense is uniform for every person (I, you, he, we, you, they did) except for "to be" (I, he was, but you, we, you, they were), but it wasn't always that way.

Anyway, if I were you, I would learn it because it usually separates the intelligent from ignoramuses. It's correct English even if it be a little old.

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Younger people would never use 'were', here in Australia at least. From the point of view of grammar, both are OK nowadays. It's interesting to note, that IELTS would accept both while TOEFL would be very reluctant to accept 'was'.

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The rule that I was taught is that was is for things that could be true but aren't, and were is for things that could never be true.

So, if I was an airline pilot is OK because conceivably I could retrain as a pilot, if I wanted.

But if I were you is right because I will never be you.

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But what about the song from "Fiddler on the Roof" "If I Were a Rich Man". Couldn't Tevye conceivably become a rich man? –  Daniel Aug 28 '10 at 21:06
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Nice point. OK, two possible answers: first, Tevye is an ignorant man and doesn't know the grammatical rule; second, Tevye is savvy enough to know he never will be rich. –  Daniel Roseman Aug 31 '10 at 20:09
    
that's the first thing I thought of when I saw the title of the question :) –  Benjol Sep 8 '10 at 5:36
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"If I was an airline pilot" and "If I were an airline pilot" have different meanings. The latter is the subjunctive case (and presumably what most people mean, even if they say the former). The former is talking about the past tense - "if I was an airline pilot 10 years ago..." –  Marthaª Oct 12 '10 at 17:28
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I think both can be said to be standard uses nowadays. I have read that American English uses the subjunctive ("If I were you") more than British English. I never use "If I were you" but always the "was" formation. In the same way I would never say "If he be right", etc.

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An American would not say if he be right too. –  kiamlaluno Aug 29 '10 at 23:45
    
@kiamlaluno: their use of the subjunctive is obviously rather inconsistent then. –  delete Sep 5 '10 at 18:33
    
@Shinto Sherlock: the past tense of the subjunctive moode is used to express an imaginary or hypothetical condition, as far as I know. I have never heard somebody saying if I be rich, I would live in Hawaii, or if I am rich, I would be live in Hawaii. –  kiamlaluno Sep 5 '10 at 21:26
    
Compare the previous sentence with "I request that Jill pick up the ball," which uses the present subjunctive to express a mandative statement. Subjunctive mood is used in the same way in both American and British English. –  kiamlaluno Apr 3 '11 at 1:38
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For this form of the subjunctive, Ngrams doesn't show a marked American/British difference. –  Peter Shor Feb 9 '12 at 17:35
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protected by tchrist Sep 26 '12 at 23:04

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