Should I Use I Was or I Were?
Posted by Jake Magnum | June 7, 2018 | This or That?
One of the classic “this or that” topics in English is whether to use the phrase I was or I were in a sentence. The factor that determines whether I was or I were is appropriate is whether the situation being discussed is something that actually happened in the past (I was should be used), or some present or future situation that is not happening (I were should be used).
When discussing an event that took place in the past, use I was.
For instance, if I went to a baseball game yesterday, I would say “I was at the game.”
When discussing an event that is not taking place in the present, use I were.
There’s another ball game happening right now, but I was not able to go because I’m busy writing this blog. For me to say, “I wish I was at the game today” would be ungrammatical because I am talking about a situation in the present that is not actually happening. The correct way to express my desire to be at the ball game would be to say, “I wish I were at the game today.”
When discussing an event that is not going to take place in the future, use I were.
There’s also another game this Monday that I’m going to have to miss. This is especially disappointing, as the ballpark I go to offers two hot dogs for the price of one on Mondays. It would be incorrect for me to say, “If I was going to the game on Monday I would get two hot dogs,” because I am now discussing a future event that is not going to happen. Again, I were should be used here: “If I were going to the game on Monday, I would get two hot dogs.”
However, if there’s a chance I will make it to the game on Monday, but there’s also a chance I won’t, the phrase needs to be altered slightly. In this case, I would say, “If I were to go to the game on Monday, I would get two hot dogs.” When something may or may not happen in the future, I were is still used but is followed by to, and the verb that comes after changes form.
When discussing an event that did not take place in the past, use I had been.
You may be wondering what phrase should be used if you wanted to express some past situation that did not happen. For instance, if I had missed the game yesterday, would it be correct to say, “I wish I was at the game yesterday” or “I wish I were at the game yesterday”?
For a situation such as this, neither I was nor I were should be used. Instead, the past perfect form of be — which is had been — should be used: “I wish I had been at the game yesterday.”
When discussing an event that may or may not have taken place in the past, use I was.
Finally, one can speak of past situations that may or may not have actually happened. For instance, let’s say I ran into a friend yesterday but was distracted and didn’t make conversation with them. If I were to see them again today, I might say, “I’m sorry if I was rude yesterday.” I was is the correct term to use in this instance because it is possible (but not certain) that I came across as rude yesterday.
To recap, use I was when discussing something that actually (or possibly) transpired in the past. Use I were when discussing a hypothetical present or future situation. When discussing a past situation that did not actually happen, neither I was nor I were is proper; use I had been instead.