by Annette Lyon
We all know the line Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof:
"If I were a rich man . . ."
That sentence is in what's called subjunctive mood.
It's a complicated topic, but today we're making it pretty simple and addressing the biggest mistake I see with it (even with professional copy editors who are supposed to know what they're doing . . .).
In his song, Tevye describes what he'd do if he had a lot of money. He's not rich. He's rather poor, frankly, but IF HE WERE rich, this is what he'd do.
What he's describing is CONTRARY TO FACT.
That right there is the key. He's NOT rich. Therefore, If I WERE a rich man rather than If I WAS a rich man.
The latter sentence is valid too; it just needs a different context that doesn't contradict reality.
The best way is to put reality in question. What if we don't KNOW whether Tevye is rich or poor? Someone could then remember good 'ol Tevye from the neighborhood and say:
"I wonder if he was rich."
WAS works here, because we're simply contemplating the reality. We aren't contradicting it.
The problem is that most people use a handy-dandy trick as their personal red flag for when things are subjunctive: they look for IF.
And that does work a lot, just like our opening sentence, and many others:
- If I were a rich man . . .
- If I were skinnier . . .
- If I were in England right now . . .
- If I weren't so impatient . . .
In each case, the speaker is contracting fact. They aren't rich, skinny, in England, or patient.
But here's where things get dicey and most people mess up with subjunctive: they see IF and, whether or not the sentence contradicts reality, they immediately assume, "YAY! SUBJUNCTIVE! I'll use WERE!"
- He wondered if she were cold.
- If she were going to get there on time, she'd better hurry.
- She couldn't help but think about if he were attracted to her.
- If it were a homemade pie, which she'd find out in moments, she'd surely she'd eat the whole thing.
In each of the cases above, we either don't know the reality (so it cannot be subjunctive) or we do know the reality. But the sentence happens to have IF in it, so heck, let's throw in WERE anyway.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
- He wondered if she WAS cold.
- If she WAS going to get there on time, she'd better hurry.
- She couldn't help but think about if he WAS attracted to her.
- If it WAS homemade pie, which she'd find out in moments, she'd surely eat the whole thing.
Teachers used IF as a tool to help students spot subjunctive and help them know when to use WERE. But it's not a foolproof method.
IF isn't the only time you'll get subjunctive mood, and it's not a guarantee that the sentence using IF is subjunctive at all.
Simply ask: Is this sentence contracting facts we know?
YES: Use WERE.
NO: Use WAS.