Grammar If I Was vs. If I Were: Which One Is Right? |
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If I Was vs. If I Were: Which One Is Right?

Many of us use the phrases if I was and if I were interchangeably. Some of us might apply one or the other according to what our ears are accustomed to but perhaps not fully recognize the grammatical reasoning behind that use.

This brief review will explore the difference between if I was and if I were.

When to Use If I Was

If I was is the phrase to use when describing a plausible action in the first-person past tense. Let’s look at a few examples:

I should find out if I was awarded the scholarship on Friday.

My friend wasn’t sure if I was staying with my parents at the time.

If I was responsible for the mistake in my team’s report, I should be the one to correct it.

In each of these situations, the past tense verb was indicates something that happened or may have happened in the past according to perceived truth, reason, possibility.

When to Use If I Were

Unlike if I was, if I were conveys the subjunctive mood, which is used to express something that is speculative but contrary to fact or likelihood.

Here are a few examples:

If I were a multibillionaire, I would buy an island in the South Pacific.

I would produce nothing but holiday music and videos if I were the owner of a media empire.

If I were as charming as a Hollywood leading man, I might ask my secret crush to go on a date.

Each of these describes a situation that doesn’t exist and, for many people, likely will not. Where if I was implies a possible scenario, if I were indicates one that is either not true or highly unlikely.

Let’s compare the two contexts again for good measure:

If I was an astronaut, I would want to be the first one off the ship after landing.

If I were an astronaut, I would want to be the first one off the ship after landing.

Which one is correct? It depends on whether you plan to go through the rigors of becoming an astronaut. At the time of this writing, there are fewer than 50 active astronauts in the U.S. out of 331 billion people. If you expressed that statement, which phrase would you use for yourself?

Therein lies the primary difference between if I was and if I were. Simply remember that one is for things that are real or could have been possible and the other is for unlikely or impossible situations, and you’ll always be able to tell them apart.

Pop Quiz

Identify the correct phrase in each sentence according to its context.

1. [If I was / If I were] you, I would just get a new lawnmower.

2. [If I was / If I were] the lead guitarist in a famous rock band, I would write epic solos.

3. The teacher asked me to bring an extra pen [if I was / if I were] planning to attend the extra study session.

4. [If I was / If I were] more informed about the contract, I wouldn’t have signed it.

5. Jack, the tallest player, said I could be on the basketball team only [if I was / if I were] taller than he was.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were you, I would just get a new lawnmower.

2. If I were the lead guitarist in a famous rock band, I would write epic solos.

3. The teacher asked me to bring an extra pen if I was planning to attend the extra study session.

4. If I was more informed about the contract, I wouldn’t have signed it.

5. Jack, the tallest player, said I could be on the basketball team only if I were taller than he was.

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