Subjunctive Uses Were, Not Was
Posted by languageandgrammar on February 7, 2008
Colin Cowherd, January 22, 2008, talking about Tony Dungy coaching in Indianapolis while his family is living in Tampa: If I was a columnist in Indianapolis, I would write about that story. Well, even though I like his show and sense of humor, since Cowherd was obviously passing judgment on Dungy’s lifestyle, I feel comfortable passing judgment on Cowherd’s grammar.
When describing something that is contrary to what is true, you cannot use the regular ol’ past tense of the verb to be, which is what the radio host does here (was). You must, instead, use the subjunctive. The subjunctive is necessary in many situations, but I’ll discuss two of them here: with the verb to wish (which always expresses what is contrary to fact) and with the word if when it is expressing something that is contrary to fact.
In the above example, Cowherd says If I was a columnist in Indianapolis…, but he is not a columnist in Indianapolis, so that’s an example of using if to express something that is contrary to fact. Therefore, using the past tense—was—is incorrect. He should’ve used the subjunctive: If I were a columnist, I would write about that story.
When using the subjunctive, the form of the verb to be is were, regardless of the subject. Here are some other examples.
I wish I were a columnist in Indianapolis. (not I wish I was a columnist)
If she were a columnist in Indianapolis, then she wouldn’t live in Tampa. (not If she was a columnist)
He wishes that he were a columnist in Indianapolis. (not He wishes that he was a columnist)
If it weren’t 1000 miles from Tampa to Indianapolis, then there would be no story. (not If it wasn’t 1000 miles)
If he was too critical of Dungy’s living arrangements, then he’s probably sorry. (Here, was is correct because this statement is not necessarily contrary to fact; he may very well have been too critical, so we use the regular ol’ past tense.)
If I was listening to Cowherd’s show, then it must’ve been Monday morning. (I may very well have been listening to Cowherd’s show, so was is correct.)
Again, just remember that you use the subjunctive when you’re talking about something that is definitely contrary to fact.
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