How to rule over the “Was” “Were” Rules
All those confusing writing exceptions . . . explained
This article was requested, so I gladly accepted the “challenge” and took some time to write it out so I could share it with y’all today.
I’ll start with two sentences:
“I was going to the gym, but I got a call from the daycare.”
“If I were going to the gym, I’d work out for two hours.”
There is only one difference in these two sentences, and it’s not the wording. No, it’s not was and were either. Give up? It’s the “if.”
“To be” verbs have many rules. I won’t go into using “to be” verbs regarding the sentence’s object today. That discussion is for passive voice, but that is something you can find here if that’s what you’re looking for. Instead, we’re going to talk about how they’re usually used in sentences. We’ll talk about when to use “was” and when to use “were.” Yeah, we’re only discussing two “to be” verbs today.
Before anyone asks why I’m talking about something I say shouldn’t be used, shh. I don’t say that. It should be avoided but not all the time. Again, another article. That one I linked to up there. Keep reading. The thing is, was and were aren’t just used in passive voice. That’s just a more common topic people cover.
Examples of “to be” verbs:
Singular and Plural Rule. We all know this one
The common rule that determines how you use “was” and “were” is that singular and plural rule. If the noun is singular, you use was. If the noun is plural, you use were.
Here are a couple examples:
I was going to tell you, but I couldn’t.
When are you going to tell me who was asking for my number?
We were looking for a reason to invite you; obviously, we didn’t find one.
After they left, they said they were coming home.
Ready for a mind boggler? Let’s break this rule:
If she were here, I’d give her a hug bigger than Tokyo.
The “If…I Wish…” Rule. Or Subjunctive. Same thing
See that last sentence up there? Confusing, huh? If you don’t know why it was confusing, let’s rewind. What was the noun (the subject)? She. That’s a singular subject, so what’s the right word for it according to the singular/plural rule: was. It sounds funky, doesn’t it—if she was here, I’d give her a hug bigger than Tokyo. If you read that with an accent, you may have caught a possible reason this subjunctive rule exists.
When something isn’t true or never happened, or when that something cannot happen, this rule says to drop all the rules and use “were.” Don’t ask why. That’s the rule. And it works. Otherwise, English speakers would sound funny saying “If you was here, I’d give you a big hug.” (I know, some of you say it, but hopefully you don’t type it.) Now, if we’re going to get into writing narrative, breaking the rule here would work. If your narrator isn’t educated or the person speaking is uneducated—or perhaps this simply falls in line with their dialect—using was and making this sentence grammatically incorrect works just fine.
Usually, a sentence like this is preceded by “If” or “I wish.” These are typical “didn’t happen” situations.
I wish I were in California with you.
If she were any more tan, she’d look like an Oompa Loompa.
Ready for another one?
Yesterday, Clara asked if he was dating someone.
Did I break another rule? What? No . . . well, not really. Because this is a hypothetical situation and can’t be determined as true or false, we go back to the singular/plural rule. You don’t know if this guy is actually dating someone and even if you know, as the person saying it, the person hearing you doesn’t. So treat it how it is. It’s hypothetical. The answer can go both ways. That’s the point.
Keep in mind, most people don’t actually follow rules like this when they talk. You won’t be able to determine an answer simply by listening to their grammar. If I ask you if George was walking home today instead of driving, that doesn’t mean George is walking home.
The You, You Rule
“You” is irritatingly rebellious. No, not you. The word “you.” I used “is” for a reason. Learn your English. 😉
“You” seems to break any rule it wants to. It can mean one person, two people, or a thousand. It can be a man or woman, boy or girl, animal or object. And now, it wants to defy the rules of grammar. Here are a few frustrating examples. If you can catch the rule it breaks, you’re a winner.
You were at the mall yesterday, darlin’. You don’t need to go today.
I asked you if you were leaving the house yet.
Yeah, very rebellious. But it’s also predictable. You know why? “You” never gets to sit beside “was.” Ever. If I’m wrong, I’ll…well, I’ll laugh. I’ll laugh because it’ll still sound hilarious. But “you” told me its best friend is “were.” So keep them together.
Again, using “was” in its place will just sound like a certain dialect. Some call it Southern (it’s so not; I’m southern), some call it hick, some say hillbilly . . . the point is that it’s something people use, so you can too. Just make sure it fits the narrative. Don’t use it just because you can. Break the rules of grammar because you need to break the rules of grammar.
Hopefully, I shed some light on this and you learned something new about something seemingly so basic in the English language. I wrote this over a period of three or four days so I feel like I’m missing one, but I can’t think of it. If you know of a situation where “was” or “were” breaks all three rules, please let me know and I’ll address it. Otherwise, I’m going to expect that my brain made up the idea of missing something, and I’ll leave it at that.
If you’d like to test yourself on what you have learned or what you may already know, give it a shot and take the quiz I set up below! Good luck!