- If I was...
- If I were...
When is it correct to use "If I was" vs. "If I were" in standard English?
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SYNOPSIS: Sometimes it must be “if I was”, but at other times it can be “if I were” — and for some speakers in those cases, perhaps even must be “if I were” in their idiolect.
Sentences with the subordinating conjunction if normally contain two clauses, each with its own subject and verb. The question asks what to do about the past-tense be verb in the “if” clause.
Unfortunately, as it’s currently worded the question can have no answer that is simultaneously all of short, complete, and correct. That’s because it doesn’t provide enough context to know which one of many possible cases actually applies here. I must therefore cover them all.
David Maule in his 1988 EFL paper titled ‘Sorry, if he comes, I go’: teaching conditionals suggested that English conditionals be broadly classified as one of four types depending on whether their outcomes were real vs. unreal and past vs. non-past. (Maule classifies these based on their “then” part not on their “if” part, and as we shall see, this is a useful way to organize them.)
Maule discovered that most English conditionals do not fit into the narrow models typically presented to EFL students learning English.
Christian Jones and Daniel Waller built on Maule’s work with their own EFL paper in 2010, If only it were true: the problem with the four conditionals. The authors sampled a random assortment of conditionals from the British National Corpus and classified each as being one of Maule’s four categories listed above. They discovered that the real cases contained patterns in both the past and the non-past that appeared very frequently in real English, but which are rarely taught to learners.
The class B “real past” cases fit into three patterns:
Of those three, the final pattern of having past simple in both clauses was by far the most common of the three. The sample provided for that case was:
... if you wanted[real] to know the answer ... you had[real] to keep zapping from channel to channel.
Converting that into the first person singular to align with the asker’s question gives us:
If I wanted[real] to know the answer, I had[real] to keep zapping from channel to channel.
And it just one step more to swap out want for be:
If I was[real] interested in knowing the answer, I had[real] to keep zapping from channel to channel.
So here we discover the first of what shall prove to be several answers to the asker’s question:
These are always conditionals from Maule’s class B. It would not be grammatical to use “If I were” there.
These “real past” cases happen all the time in real speech and real writing, as Jones and Waller prove.
Consider this arrangement:
If she was[real] already home when he got there, then she took[real] the bus.
That’s a real past case on both sides, and it would be ungrammatical to use “If she were” to attempt to mean the same thing. You can also use a modal perfect in the consequent along with that past simple in the “if” part:
If she was[real] already home when he got there, then she must have taken the bus.
If she was[real] already home when he got there, then she will have taken the bus.
Those are all real cases, and you know by the “then” part.
For Class C, the unreal non-pasts, there are many example patterns provided, but the most common case by far uses “if” with past simple or with a modal, then some modal in the consequent.
One provided example there is:
... I’d give it a good hiding if it didn’t behave.
However, there are many other Class C patterns, such as:
... if we could get three or four items, that would be very nice.
... if two members of staff happen to fall in love and decide to marry it would be churlish to be appointing blame.
The thing about using the past simple in something like “If it didn’t” is that without looking further along in the sentence, this alone is not enough to reveal whether it’s a Class B type that will take a real consequent or whether it’s a Class C type that will take an unreal one.
Because we use the simple past tense in English for real and unreal conditionals, you normally cannot know whether it’s the unreal case until you hit the “then” portion. But in one unique yet common case, you can, and that is when a singular subject is governing the verb be in the past. That’s because the unreal case uses were no matter whether singular or plural.
So we could say:
If a staff member were to fall in love, it would be churlish to assign blame.
That’s a Class C conditional because the “then” part has a would be in it. But you already knew it was going to be a hypothetical case when you saw the “If a staff member were” in the first half.
Recasting that into the first person singular provides the second answer to the asker’s question:
If I were to fall in love, it would be churlish to blame me for it.
This special, modally marked form of be is used only for an unreal hypothetical. It is a relic of the Old English past subjunctive, and it was once used for far more than we use it today.
Here alone can you detect through the morphology of the verb that it is anything other than the past simple. This is a Class C conditional because it has an unreal non-past in its consequent: “would be churlish”
You cannot go wrong by using were for hypotheticals like this, as it has been the preferred use for centuries, particularly but not exclusively in America. Many careful writers still choose to observe this distinction: you need but read some recent issue of The Economist magazine from the UK to find plenty of examples of this. Indeed, English teachers at American schools have been known to mark various hypothetical uses of was as “wrong”, saying that it “should” be were.
However, you should not flinch if — nay, when — you hear someone say “If I was... I would...” as a Class C conditional in casual speech. This sometimes happens even in educated speakers and writers, so you should not make anything of it. Some writers prefer not to do that, but unless the person complaining is your English teacher, you shouldn’t let it get to you. (Yes, this is ungrammatical for some people. For others, it is not.)
It could be that those writers or speakers using “If I was...would” in their conditionals have chosen not to convey the nuance, or perhaps did not consider such a distinction meaningful in their own speech. Some are even unaware that the distinction exists.
Because of the redundancy in language where the would in the “then” part gives it away, it’s not really needed anyway; everyone will still know what you mean.
These forms are still unreal cases even when they aren’t modally marked as unreal, singular were. Because in all cases except for this unique case of was/were you cannot ever morphologically distinguish a real case from an unreal one in English, you have to decide whether it’s unreal by looking at the “then” part, not the “if” part (at least, not reliably).
That means you need to train yourself to tell the real case:
If she was[real] already home when he got there, then she took[real] the bus.
From the unreal case:
If she were[unreal] already home when he got there, he wouldn’t have[unreal] to run pick her up himself.
Even when the unreal case uses the past simple not unreal past in the “if” part the way some speakers do:
If she was[“unreal”] already home when he got there, he wouldn’t have[unreal] to run pick her up himself.
That last example above is real in form but it is still unreal in sense because of the would. Some writers disapprove of that style of using was for a hypothetical, but it’s not uncommon, especially in speech.
Moreover, you cannot somehow make it be “less hypothetical” merely by using “was...would”; that’s just as hypothetical as “were...would” for the reasons already stated.
One final common construction uses past perfect in the “if” part and a modal perfect in the “then” part:
If she had been[unreal] already home when he got there, he wouldn’t have had[unreal] to run pick her up himself.
Although that’s a common way to set up a unreal case with perfects on both sides, there are many other ways, including using a non-perfect unreal past in the “if”:
If she were[unreal] already home when he got there, he wouldn’t have had[unreal] to run pick her up himself.
Yes, it’s somehow “unbalanced” with respect to the perfect aspect, but English doesn’t have an obligatory sequence-of-tenses rule like some languages do, and we often use a simple past instead of a perfect one because it’s...simpler that way.
There is one relatively uncommon place where you pretty much do have to use were not was in a conditional, and that is when you use inversion to forgo the word if altogether:
Were[unreal] there any other way, we would have[unreal] found it.
That’s the same as saying:
If there were[unreal] any other way, we would have[unreal] found it.
or even as saying:
If there had been[unreal] any other way, we would have[unreal] found it.
But that last one lends itself to an inverted version:
Had there been[unreal] any other way, we would have[unreal] found it.
The subject–verb inversion is something of a stealth conditional because it doesn’t use the word if. The inversion alone is enough to signal that it’s what used to be called a “subjunctive” use (back when English had an actual subjunctive). It doesn’t have to use be, but if you do use be for it, you should certainly use were. Other verbs in the past tense work the same, with the inversion signalling the conditional:
Had[unreal] they but asked, we would have[unreal] gladly told them.
You’ll find this “subjunctive inversion” style in formal writing, but very rarely if ever in extemporaneous, casual speaking. That’s because inversion isn’t all that normal, so it’s a marked form. Consider how stiffly formal this Steven Brust quote mentioned in this answer sounds:
To be more precise, and state the matter in its simplest form, we believe that were[unreal] any of the events in the previous volume of such a nature that they could be omitted without severe damage to the narrative, we should have omitted[unreal] them to begin with.
There instead of writing out the conditional the long way with “if any were”, to be more formal Brust wrote it with inversion: “were any”. (He’s also playing on the modal duality of should, but that’s something else again.)
If you ever get the chance to read English literature from a couple centuries ago or better, you might even come upon conditional inversion used with the bare infinitive in what has historically been called a “present subjunctive” use:
Be ye[unreal] man or mouse, still shall ye say nothing!
That’s using inversion to skip the if, as though it were:
If ye be[unreal] man or mouse, still shall ye say nothing!
Nobody talks that way anymore, and nobody writes that way anymore, either, not unless they intend to represent the speech of centuries long past. Instead we’d just say:
No matter whether you are a man or a mouse, you still will say nothing!
I have related answers here:
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.
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.
The rule is, if your hypothetical scenario suggests something that isn't true, use were:
If I were stronger, I'd break your arm!
(I'm not stronger.)
If I were a flower, I'd go crazy!
(I'm not really a flower, though I've been called a pansy before.)
If my room were clean, it would be a first.
(My room isn't clean.)
If it may be true, use was:
If this answer was poorly constructed, it may have been due to the fact that I was really tired.
(It may be poorly written.)
The same rules apply to sentences with though:
He appears as though he were homeless.
(He's not homeless, yet, although keeping up his current dressing habits could result in such.)
This is addressed, among other places, on pages 56-57 of my favorite reference book, "Woe Is I" by Patricia O' Conner.
Also see http://m.grammarbook.com/grammar-rules/subject-and-verb-agreement.aspx from which I quote:
Rule 10. The word were replaces was in sentences that express a wish or are contrary to fact:
Example: If Joe were here, you'd be sorry.
Shouldn't Joe be followed by was, not were, given that Joe is singular? But Joe isn't actually here, so we say were, not was. The sentence demonstrates the subjunctive mood, which is used to express things that are hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory. The subjunctive mood pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs.
Examples: I wish it were Friday. She requested that he raise his hand.
In the first example, a wishful statement, not a fact, is being expressed; therefore, were, which we usually think of as a plural verb, is used with the singular subject I.
Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the second example, where a request is being expressed, the subjunctive mood is correct.
Note: The subjunctive mood is losing ground in spoken English but should still be used in formal speech and writing.
If I was: This phrase uses the past indicative mood, and it is used to state a fact that could be true. Have you ever gotten an e-mail from Twitter telling you about a suspicious login? They say, "If this was your login, don't worry about it," because that login to your account the other day could be yours, but Twitter isn't sure.
If I were: This phrase uses the past subjunctive mood, and it is used in situations in which the speaker is wishfully thinking. I want to be taller, so I sometimes I say, "If I were taller, my life would be easier," but the fact of the matter is I'm not taller than I already am. I'm wishfully thinking about a situation that isn't true.
If I be/If I am: These phrases can be used interchangeably when the sentence refers to a future situation that could happen. The archaic If I be uses the present subjunctive while If I am uses the present indicative. Here are a few examples.
Google Ngrams shows that using the present subjunctive in this case is rather archaic, but it is still far from being incorrect. Again, the two moods can be used interchangeably in these cases.
First things first.
When you're talking about a real situation, you should stick to either:
(1) If I was...
[for the past time]
(1') If I am...
[for the present or future time]
When you're talking about a hypothetical situation, you'll most likely be okay with:
(2) If I were...
[for the present or future time]
The beauty of (2) is that it can be used even for the past time of a hypothetical situation. Yes, the original form for this would be:
(3) If I had been...
But I've seen native speakers prefer to use (2) instead of (3) for the past time of a hypothetical situation, time and time again, especially in spoken English.
There's a little but important twist in all this.
Although being correct, using (2) for a hypothetical situation in an informal context might make it sound a tad stronger than you want it to. I suppose this might be because were sounds stronger than was.
Whatever the real reason may be, therefore, you might want to use (1) instead of (2) for a hypothetical situation in an informal context, unless of course you want to make it sound stronger for some contextual reason.
Sometimes, using (1) for a hypothetical situation might also make the speaker sound "cooler" as might be the case in this clip of the movie 'KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE', where Charlie says:
If I was you, I'd unlock your cab.