I was reading letters from a surgeon to his wife during the Civil War and noticed he used "was" as opposed to "were" on many occasions. Examples:

I truly wish you was here with me.

Was you planning to visit...?

Other than this strange (to me) usage, his language was very formal and correct. Has there been an evolution in the accepted usage of was/were?

2 Answers 2


From The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, p. 332, by John Algeo, via Google Books:

When thou, thee, and thine dropped out of the language in the early Colonial period on both sides of the Atlantic, speakers felt a need nonetheless to distinguish between singular and plural forms. The earliest attempt was simply to make verb agreement do the work: speakers would say you was for the singular and you were for the plural. Beginning in the eighteenth century, this sensible solution was met with heavy resistance from purists, and you was became heavily stigmatized by the end of the nineteenth century in America (though it has by no means dropped out of colloquial speech in the United States).


This misuse of was for were in the subjunctive was and is common. EDIT: Some wish that it were not so.

  • 6
    I don't think the question is about the subjunctive. The second example is quite telling. Looks more like a question about dialectal differences.
    – RegDwigнt
    Apr 24, 2011 at 13:51
  • @RegDwight - That the writer is wishing for his wife's company requires the subjunctive when he expresses the wish in writing. Maybe the grammar error is dialectical, but the error is still an error. May 2, 2011 at 4:42
  • 1
    @Pete Wilson: But if you are using the conjugation I was/you was/he was//we were/you were/they were for the simple past, what conjugation are you supposed to use for the subjunctive? May 2, 2011 at 4:54

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