Grammar Was vs. Were |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Was vs. Were

While some of our articles focus on minor grammar points or innocent, common mistakes, here we want to tackle a bigger issue. Some people may struggle with the difference between was and were. Because these are both frequent words that might be used throughout the day, understanding how and when to apply each one can greatly improve your communication skills in American English.

Was and Were: Similarities and Differences

Both of these words come from the verb “to be.” Obviously, being is a big part of life, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that different forms of the verb are so often used (e.g., am, is, are).

In this case, both was and were are in the past tense. A main difference is that one (was) is singular, and the other (were) is often plural.

If was is past-tense singular, then it refers to one person or object being in a previous moment or time.

Examples
Karen was tired, so she took a nap. (She felt tired at a time before the present.)

I was looking for my cat all day, and when I finally found her, she was asleep under a blanket. (I was seeking the cat and it was sleeping at a time before the present.)

That sandwich was the best I ever had. (The sandwich had been eaten at a former time.)

These are all singular subjects in a past-tense situation.

Were is past tense as well, but it works with plural subjects in the third person.

Examples
I looked all over, but my papers were nowhere to be found.

All the kids at the park were on their phones even though we rented a bouncing castle.

The suitcases were three days late in arriving at our vacation hotel.

Were is also the past-tense form of to be for the second person singular (you) and plural (we).

Examples
You were Barbara’s favorite teacher in grade school.

We were the first people in line for the Dave Matthews Band concert tickets.

The past-tense verb were is used with the subjunctive mood as well. Learn more

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the right verb for each sentence.

  1. I heard there [was / were] several hundred runners at the race.
  2. The barista [was / were] very helpful in making me a new latte after I dropped my first one.
  3. That old car [was / were] rusty, but I loved the way the engine sounded.
  4. It turned out those coins I found on the beach [was / were] worth a fortune.
  5. My left shoe [was / were] ruined during my dog’s temper tantrum.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. I heard there were several hundred runners at the race.
  2. The barista was very helpful in making me a new latte after I dropped my first one.
  3. That old car was rusty, but I loved the way the engine sounded.
  4. It turned out those coins I found on the beach were worth a fortune.
  5. My left shoe was ruined during my dog’s temper tantrum.

 

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Good grammar is vital to clear communication. Visit our blog often to keep your skills sharp and strong. If you have a question or comment about this topic, simply leave it in the box below.

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44 responses to “Was vs. Were

  1. Augustine says:

    Is it right to say “wish I were young again”?

  2. Catherine Sperando says:

    In a document is it correct to say the Minutes of a meeting was read since “Minutes” is the name of a document, or should it be the Minutes of a meeting were read?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      In the sentence “The minutes of the meeting were read,” the subject is “minutes.” The noun minutes referring to the official record of the proceedings of a meeting is plural. Therefore, the plural verb were is used.

  3. Valerie B says:

    So were the couch and rug, or so was the couch and rug.

  4. John Schmidt says:

    If I was a competent videographer…

    If I were a competent videographer….

    Which is correct?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The verb use would depend on whether the given scenario is possible or impossible. Could you be a videographer? Perhaps. (Conversely, could you turn into a book with pages?) In this context, you would use the declarative “was.” If the prospect has little or no chance of becoming true (such as turning into a book), you would use the subjunctive “were.” You can explore this subject further in our article Subjunctive Mood: What Is the Subjunctive Mood?

  5. sharris says:

    Is it “the pair was seen” or “were seen”?

  6. Mary says:

    Is not “were” used to denote the future as in “If I were a rich man…”

  7. Uzziel says:

    In this example, shall I use was or were?
    As a result, the issue about “cherry-picking” of cases was resolved, as no one could do manual selection.

  8. Uzziel says:

    Thank you very much. I thought so but Google docs recommended “were.”

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The spell-check features of programs such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs can be useful, but they can still raise questions as well. If ever in doubt about a grammatical prompt, follow your instincts and consult a supporting grammar resource to be sure.

  9. Anita says:

    Was or were:
    For the Septicemia DRGs 871 and 872, 37.2% of the errors was attributed to “no documentation.”

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Fractions and percentages can be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition following. Since the object errors is plural, use were.

  10. Kelsey says:

    I’m told the correct usage is “were,” but I can’t figure out why. It just doesn’t sound right to me.

    1,965 tons of yard waste were collected in the 2021 season.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The subject of the sentence is the plural noun tons; therefore were is correct. In addition, our Rule 1 of Writing Numbers says, “Spell out all numbers beginning a sentence.”
      One thousand nine hundred sixty-five tons of yard waste were collected in the 2021 season.

  11. nick says:

    I can’t work this one out. Should it be “It would have been safer if John or Peter was there,” or should it be “It would have been safer if John or Peter were there”? Thank you.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The use of “was” or “were” would be determined by whether the scenario is plausible (conditional mood) or implausible (subjunctive mood). Could John or Peter have been there? If so but they weren’t, that would be the conditional (was there). If there’s no way they could have been there – e.g., they were deceased or they lived in the middle of the South Pole without a sled – it would be the subjunctive (were there).

  12. Mia says:

    Is it if I were rich or if I was rich? Could you please explain more about “if I was or if I were” proper usage and any rules?

  13. Jay says:

    What if there are multiple actions?

    For example,

    He told me that washing your face, shaving your beard and trimming your face was crucial OR were crucial.

    I saw [was] being used in an American video for something similar.

    Thank you!

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Your sentence contains multiple gerunds; therefore, use the plural verb were and use a comma after the word beard.
      He told me that washing your face, shaving your beard, and trimming your face were crucial.
      Please see our post What Is a Gerund and Why Care? and our Rule 1 of Commas.

  14. Dotty says:

    In the sentence, “In 2010 and 2011, 600 gallons of water was dumped…” is it correct to use “was,” or should I use “were?”

  15. DJ Cloete says:

    Please assist if it should be “Were the Relationship Banking Portfolios affected by the change, or was it only the Retail Portfolios?” Is the “was” before “it” correctly used, or should it be adjusted to accommodate “portfolios” later in the sentence?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      “Was” agrees with the singular pronoun “it.” Therefore, the sentence is correct as written.

  16. Oshokoya Benjamin says:

    Which of these 2 statements is correct….

    Was you ever in doubt before?

    Where you ever in doubt before?

  17. Joey Benun says:

    I am narrating a children’s book, and wanted know if the below sentence should utilize “was” or “were” (note that Pebbles is a character’s name):

    What made Pebbles really curious was/were BIG numbers…

  18. C.T. says:

    I found this opening line in a library book my daughter brought home and felt it was grammatically incorrect.
    “Once upon a time, there were a kind king and queen who had twelve beautiful daughters.”
    Shouldn’t it be Once upon a time, there WAS a kind king and queen who had twelve beautiful daughters?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Since “were” is referring to both the king and the queen, the plural verb is grammatically correct.

  19. alex says:

    Is it “One in five adults in the United States were affected by mental illness in 2020,” or “One in five adults in the United States was affected by mental illness in 2020”? I’m struggling to decide if I should use the singular since we are referring to “one,” or if because the noun “adults” is plural, the verb should be as well. Additionally, this construction is complicated to me because “one in five” is a simplified fraction, while “two in ten adults” clearly calls for the plural, as does stating the fraction in the form of a percentage (20%), e.g., “Twenty percent of adults in the United States were affected by mental illness in 2020.”
    Thank you for weighing in!

  20. Carmen says:

    “Child Safety were considering the removal of her newborn child.” Should this be “was” as “Child Safety” is the name of a department?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Yes, “Child Safety” is considered a singular noun; therefore, “was” is correct.

      Beyond being a singular noun, it sounds like an abbreviated reference to a division or department. We can see how some writers might consider such a reference as having an omitted but understood plural character (i.e., more than one person in the department/division), but that would also typically qualify as a nonformal approach.

  21. Luna de Bethencourt says:

    Please note English is not my first language. I detest poor use of the language.
    I have noticed you make reference in your advice to pay attention to the subject of the sentence in order to know which verbal tense we should use; however, on occasion you make reference to the subject of the sentence and in others to the noun. For example, “What made Pebbles really curious was big numbers.” I do not understand why use “were,” as the subject of the sentence is “Pebbles”? She is the one who was curious. About what? Big numbers.

    Here is another example I don’t understand: My husband insists (and I believe him, he is British) that the correct sentence is ”The account has now matured; thirty thousand pounds was reinvested into the bond ” (as opposed to “were”). But “pounds” is plural. Thanks for helping.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      If you turn the first sentence around, you will see that the subject is “numbers,” not “Pebbles.”
      Big numbers were what made Pebbles really curious.
      Our Rule 7 of Subject-Verb Agreement says, “Use a singular verb with distances, periods of time, sums of money, etc., when considered as a unit.” Therefore, “was” is correct in the second sentence.

  22. Helena says:

    Thank you for this very useful explanation. I have a question about sentence order. For example, in the sentence “What were the islanders like?” can I ask the very same question putting the verb “were” in a different place? For instance, is “What the islanders were like?” correct? Thank you in advance!

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      “What the islanders were like” is not a complete sentence, but rather a dependent clause. You could write “Can you tell me what the islanders were like?” In this case, the dependent clause has a clear grammatical role as a direct object.
       
      “What were the islanders like?” is grammatically correct. One way to ensure proper grammar is to re-cast the interrogative sentence with a declarative word order: “The islanders were like what?”

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