“You was” or “you were”? This is one of the great debates in the English language — well, definitely one of the debates at least! You might have heard “you was” often enough in speech to think it is correct.
It is not proper grammar to say “you was.” When “you” is the subject of the sentence, the correct verb conjugation is “were.” Per current English grammar rules, “were” is the past tense singular form in the second person. So we say “You were there” and not “You was there” unless we have a sentence where the subject is not “you.”
In this article, we will see if and when we can use “you” with “was” and explore the usage of “you was” and “you were” with examples. We will then look at the interesting history of the second-person pronoun “you.” Finally, we will learn more about the past tenses of the verb “to be” — “was” and “were.”
Is It Okay to Say “You Was”?
Willie Nelson crooned, “Forgiving you was easy, but forgetting seems to take the longest time,” while The Jackson 5 had a song titled “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage.” So it looks like we can say “you was,” but there is a caveat, depending on the subject of the sentence.
In the above examples, you can see that the verb “was” refers to “forgiving you” in the first and to “the love I saw in you” in the second.
It does not refer to “you,” so it is okay for “was” to follow “you” in both of them. In addition, there are a few other places where it is okay to use the two words together. We will look at them later in the article.
Can We Use “You” With “Was”?
Yes, we can use “you” with “was” without any fear of mistake if we use it as we did in the heading for this section! There are a few instances where we can use “you” followed by “was” in a sentence.
Again, this is almost always when “you” is not the subject of the sentence. See below for examples where it is grammatically correct today.
- The man standing near you was the dean.
- Someone like you was bound to explain this sooner or later.
- His faith in you was strong enough to help him.
You can see that in all the above examples, the verb “was” does not refer to “you.” Instead, it refers to “the man” in the first sentence who happened to be standing next to you. The second sentence can be confusing, but the subject is actually the word “someone,” who in this case is “you!”
Can you find out what “was” is referring to in the third example above? I have faith in you; I think you can!
In addition, we can use “you” with “was” in other ways.
- “You was” is grammatically incorrect. Or is it?
- He thought any word combination was possible if you put other words in between.
- I can’t remember if you or he was going to the movies.
- I can’t remember if you were going to the movies.
Technically the second (and third) examples are not ones where “you” and “was” are next to each other! However, they are clever examples of simply what the second statement states, “Any word combination is possible when we put other words in between them!”
Is “You Was There” Grammatically Correct?
“You was there” is grammatically incorrect if the subject of the sentence is “you.” While you might hear someone use the phrase “You was there,” it is most likely because they don’t know the rules of standard grammar for “you.” It could also simply be part of their colloquial speech.
According to the rules of standard Modern English, when “you” is the subject, we use “are” and “were” with it because “you” is (historically) grammatically plural. However, when the subject of the sentence is something other than “you,” we can use “was” after “you” without issues.
You might also hear similar phrases in songs or poems where the writer uses it to ensure it flows with the rhythm of the whole.
Let us look at the below examples that illustrate the use of “was” and “were” with various pronouns, including “you.”
- You were there. (correct)
- It was there. (correct)
- She was there. (correct)
- They were there. (correct)
- You was there. (incorrect)
- I wish you were here. (correct)
- I wish you was here. (incorrect)
- The woman next to you was likely wishing she was elsewhere. (correct!)
- There were many senior members in the audience. (correct)
- There was at least one senior member in the audience. (correct)
As we noted above, while we can use “you” with “was” in certain situations, using them together when “you” is the subject is incorrect. Learning more about this pronoun will help us understand the how and why of this rule better.
The Second-Person Pronoun “You”
“You” is the second-person pronoun, and we use it to refer to the person or people that the speaker is addressing or to refer to any person in general (source). In standard Modern English, it is both singular and plural, and it can denote either the subject or the object.
We can better understand why we use “you were” when “you” is the subject if we study the development of this second-person pronoun. “You” certainly has an interesting story, and we will look into it in further detail later in this section.
- You were brilliant in last evening’s performance!
- Are you joining us for dinner tonight?
- How are you doing?
The Story of “You” in English
Every day, we see examples of how societal trends impact everything around us, including language. For instance, we discern the prevalence of acronyms today that invade regular speech from text-messaging origins, like LOL or OMG! Then there is the appearance and disappearance of words in the dictionary.
For example, “pod” has a new definition since the pandemic, and there is an entry for GOAT in Merriam-Webster, which is an acronym that expands to “greatest of all time.” On the other hand, words like “bruit,” “indite,” and “scaramouch” have fallen out of use (source).
Likewise, societal trends impacted the second-person pronoun over the centuries leading to how we use it today. Let us find out how that happened.
A few centuries ago, we would not have used “you” to denote one person. Instead, English used “thou” and “thee” as the singular second-person pronouns while using “ye” and “you” as the plural second-person pronouns.
Thou art beautiful.
Seek, and ye shall find.
I miss thee.
I saw you walking together.
Formal and Informal “You”
Around the 14th century, people started using the plural “you” and “ye” to convey respect and formality to a single person. This slowly led to “thee/thou” becoming the informal “you” and “ye/you” becoming the formal “you.”
While “thou” could express both supremacy over someone and intimacy towards someone, the risk of offending others in public further led to the diminished use of the informal “thou.”
|With family and friends||With strangers|
|With social inferiors||With social superiors|
|In private||In public|
|To show familiarity, intimacy, contempt||To show formality, respect, admiration|
People even switched between the informal and formal versions of “you” during conversations.
For example, Shakespeare shifts between “thou” and “you” in Hamlet to express Hamlet’s antagonism towards his mother (source):
Queen Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.
|Subject||Thou → informal use|
Thou art beautiful.
You (or ye) → formal use
You are talented.
|You (or ye)|
Seek, and you (ye) shall find.
|Object||Thee → informal use|
I miss thee
You → formal use
We did not see you at the market
I saw you walking together.
At the same time, the distinction between “ye” and “you” decreased, and “you” became the more popular second-person pronoun, while “ye” slowly disappeared from usage. However, people still wanted to distinguish between singular and plural uses of “you” through verb agreement. They did this by using “was” for singular “you” and “were” for plural “you.”
However, between purists who resisted the use of “was” with “you,” since it was formerly a plural pronoun, and the increasing popularity of “you” as a second-person pronoun in both familiar and formal uses (aka singular and plural usage), “you were” came to be the norm.
The Present-Day “You”
Today, “you” is the standard English second-person pronoun. We use it either as the subject or an object of a sentence and for either the singular or plural sense. Still, older variations and usages persist in certain dialects around the world, and we might hear someone say “you was” or “I see thee!”
In addition, we might see them in writing for various reasons, including poetic license or to ensure native dialect narratives. While other new forms of the second-person pronoun keep cropping up, like “y’all” or “you guys,” these are colloquialisms for which there is no standardization.
Standard Modern English
|Subject||You You are talented.||You Seek, and you shall find.|
|Object||YouWe did not see you at the market||YouI saw you walking together.|
How and Where to Use “Was” and “Were”
“Was” and “were” are the past tenses for the verb “to be,” or we can also think of them as the past tenses for the auxiliary verbs, “is,” “am,” and “are.” We use “was” with singular nouns and pronouns, while we use “were” with plural nouns and pronouns.
As we have already mentioned, we also use “were” with the second-person pronoun “you” in both singular and plural forms. We also use “were” with both the first-person and third-person plurals “we” and “they.”
We also use “were” with the subjunctive mood. To learn more about this, check out the article, “I Wish I Was or I Wish I Were: Past Tense and the Subjunctive Mood.”
|I||I am reading.||I was reading.|
|You||Are you in line?||Were you waiting for me?|
|He||Is he the manager? Yes, he is.||Was he at the library? No, he was not.|
|She||She is the lead dancer for the show.||She was getting ready for the party.|
|We||Are we going to the park?||We were heading to the station last night.|
|They||They are on their way here now.||Were they eating ice cream?|
|It||It is proving to be a pleasant day.||It was a wonderful event.|
|Nouns||John is enjoying his drama class.The Smiths are coming to dinner tonight.||Sheila was our child’s first-grade teacher.Were the Smiths on vacation?|
|With ‘there’||Is there a single answer to this question?No, there are many ways to answer this.||There was a chicken crossing the road.There were way too many options!|
We follow the rules of subject-verb agreement to ensure the correct use of “was” and “were.” This means we need to make sure that a subject and verb are in agreement with each other; that is, they are either both plural or both singular.
To learn more about subject-verb agreement, check out “Everyone Is or Everyone Are: Which Is Correct?”
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Ensuring subject-verb agreement will help in using “was” and “were” correctly with “there” as well. Simply remember that when a sentence begins with “there,” we find the subject after the verb.
For example, there was only one chicken crossing the road, and the singular subject “chicken” follows “was” here, while the plural subject “many options” follows “were.”
It is correct to say “you was” when “you” is not the subject. Otherwise, you would only use “you was” as a colloquialism to repeat what someone actually said. More importantly, it is always better to use “you were” or “you are” when “you” is the subject.