by Jennie Ruby
This is a memory aid for this week's conundrum: "if I was" versus "if I were." Either of these can be correct, depending on the situation. The difference between these two expressions is that one is talking about reality, and the other is supposing something that is impossible or totally not true. The grammatical terms for these two modes of speaking are indicative (for indicating facts) and subjunctive (for supposing the impossible, or supposing something that is known to be untrue).
Here's how the two modes work.
When you use indicative statements, you are talking about facts or asking about facts, like this:
Stating a fact: I was home yesterday morning.
Asking about a fact: Was I there when you called?
In both of these sentences, you use the verb was with I. They are both singular. When you are supposing the impossible, however, you use a plural verb, were, with the singular I, like this:
If I were a rich man, I'd see my wife, my Rosie, looking like a rich man's wife.
This, of course, is a quote from a song in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. You cannot always trust popular songs to use correct grammar, but this one does. In this scenario, the man singing this song is not rich. He is never going to be rich. He is supposing the impossible. Here are some other examples of supposing the impossible or supposing something that is known to be untrue:
If I were you, I'd order the steak. (I am supposing the impossible--I can't be you.)
If I were home today, I'd take a nap after lunch. (I am supposing something that is known to be untrue--I am not home today, I know for a fact that I am not, and to suppose it is to suppose something that is not true.)
All this gets a little more difficult when you are supposing something and you don't know or remember whether it was true or not. In this case, you use the indicative, because the thing you are supposing might have been true, you just can't remember:
If I was home when you called yesterday, I did not hear the phone.
This statement is not impossible or known to be untrue. Instead, it might well have been true--I might have been home when you called.
So when you are deciding between if I was and if I were, think of the song from Fiddler on the Roof, and if you are supposing the impossible or something you know is untrue, use if I were like the song. Otherwise use if I was.
About the Author: Jennie Ruby is a veteran IconLogic trainer and author with titles such as "Essentials of Access 2000" and "Editing with MS Word 2003 and Adobe Acrobat 7" to her credit. Jennie specializes in electronic editing. At the American Psychological Association, she was manager of electronic publishing and manager of technical editing and journal production. Jennie has an M.A. from George Washington University and is a Certified Technical Trainer (Chauncey Group). She is a publishing professional with 20 years of experience in writing, editing and desktop publishing.
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