I have tried researching this topic on grammarly and on this website ("Was" or "were" in subjunctive clauses), but still am unsure.

Which is correct?

His gaze turned up, as if there were an imaginary light bulb there.


His gaze turned up, as if there was an imaginary light bulb there.

I say “were” because I think this is subjunctive, but my friend says it’s “was.”


  • 3
    They are both grammatically correct; it's a free choice, though irrealis (past subjunctive) is more formal.
    – BillJ
    Sep 27, 2019 at 14:57

1 Answer 1


There is a simple but unsatisfying answer to your question. If you had asked this question around 1950, you would have been told that the subjunctive was correct, but that ‘uneducated’ people often used ‘was’, where they should use the subjunctive or modal form.

But now, elderly sticklers for the subjunctive are in a diminishing minority.

Does that mean that the ‘subjunctive’ or ‘modal’ form is no more? Well, not exactly. The issue is only visible in the 1st and 3rd persons (I was and s/he was): all the others persons (you, we, they have ‘were’!)

But, who knows, Brexit may bring a reactionary government that insist that all schools teach children to use were.

Till then usage prevails and should do so.

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