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Can We Use “Were” With “He”?

There are many obstacles people encounter when learning the English language. For example, using grammatical moods with personal pronouns can be challenging, even if you know most of the rules. For example, should we use “were” with “he”?

We can use “were” with “he” when the sentence uses the subjunctive mood. An example would be, “If he were the president, he would have a say in the matter.” The subjunctive mood tells us when a situation is hypothetical or imagined. However, we cannot use “were” with “he” in regular past tense sentences.

In this article, we’ll learn all about how “were” can correctly go with “he” to communicate a possible scenario. So, please continue reading if you want to learn how to properly use “were” with “he” and other pronouns!

The Third-Person Pronoun “He”

In order to know when to use the phrase “he were” or “were he,” you will need to know when to properly use the pronoun “he” and understand the concept of pronouns in general.

A pronoun is a handy part of speech that we use in place of a noun or a noun phrase to prevent repetitiveness when speaking or writing (source).

The pronoun “he” belongs to a class of pronouns grammarians call third-person pronouns. Third-person pronouns refer to a person who is neither the person speaking (the first person) nor the person someone is talking to (the second person).

Other third-person pronouns include “she,” “it,” and “they.” “He” is the masculine pronoun, meaning it refers to males.

To use a third-person pronoun, you will want to ensure your listener or reader knows to whom you refer — grammarians call this person the “antecedent.” Then, you can replace their name with a pronoun on later references to this person.

For example, if you were to say, “Ben went to the supermarket yesterday,” and then you remember he bought potatoes, and you want to say that too, your follow-up sentence wouldn’t be “Ben bought potatoes.”

We can rewrite these two sentences using pronouns as “Ben went to the supermarket yesterday. He bought potatoes.” So, you see how “he” replaces “Ben” in this example. “He,” in this case, is the pronoun.

Here is another example:

  • Max needs a key to the house. He locked himself out.

In this case, “he” in the second sentence refers to “Max” in the first. Because you have already named Max, your reader knows that the second sentence is also about him.

When “Were” Is Used With “He”

Although you would typically use “was” with “he” since it is a third-person pronoun, there are occasions when you would use “were.” While “he was” describes something about the subject in the past (past tense), you can use “he were” to describe something that might be true. 

For example, we would use “If he were you” to explain that the person, “he,” would have acted differently if he were you. But of course, he’s not you in real life, so it’s an imaginary situation (source). 

Grammarians refer to this as the subjunctive mood in contrast to other grammatical moods such as the indicative, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later.

Here are some more examples of circumstances where you might use “were” with “he” to show something hypothetical:

  • If he were to eat healthier, he would be healthier.
  • He could improve his overall grade if he were to do well on this paper.
  • He promised to fix the economy if he were elected.

So, as you observe the phrase “he were,” you may also note that the subjunctive often appears with the word “if.” This shows that we should understand the following statement as something that may or may not be true.

You might also use the phrase “as if” or “as though” with the words “he were” to show that the statement is only hypothetical. Consider this example:

  • Tom walked as though he were being hunted.

In the above sentence, we should understand that the subject, Tom, is not necessarily being hunted, and he most likely isn’t. Instead, he is only walking in a way that someone might in that situation.

The Third-Person Pronoun “She”

In addition to the third-person pronoun “he,” there is also a feminine pronoun: “she.” As with the masculine pronoun, you can replace any subsequent reference to a female person with the feminine pronoun. For example:

  • Jenny went to the store. She needed a new computer.

Because the pronoun “she” follows a sentence about “Jenny,” the reader knows the pronoun refers to Jenny.

You can learn about the first-person and second-person pronouns by reading our article “You and I or You and Me: Understanding the Correct Use of these Pronouns.”

When Is “Were” Used With “She”?

The same rules for using “were” with “he” apply for the third-person pronoun “she.” The only difference is that the phrase will now refer to a female because “she” is the feminine pronoun.

Let’s try out some examples:

  • If she were home, she would have answered the door.
  • If she were any later, she would have missed the show.
  • Were she to apply, I think she could get the job.

In all of the above scenarios, we are looking at possible situations. In the first sentence, we see an “if-then” statement. If the first half of the sentence were true, “If she were home,” then the second half would be, as well — “she would have answered the door.”

When Is “Were” Used With “Us”?

You can also use “were” with the first-person plural pronoun “us.” Unlike “he” or “she,” “us” does not function as the subject of the sentence. Instead, “us” is the objective form of “we,” meaning that it receives the action instead of performing it.

Take, for example, the following sentence:

  • The contractor said he would choose the more expensive flooring if he were us.

In the above sentence, we find “us” with “were” in the final clause — “if he were us.” In this clause, the pronoun “he” is the subject. The contractor imagines what he would do if he were in someone else’s situation — “if he were us.”

As you can see, using “were” with “us” communicates a possibility just as “were” does with “he” or “she.” The most important differences are (1) “us” is first-person plural, not third-person, and (2) “us” is objective, meaning it receives action instead of performing it.

Using Grammatical Mood With “He”

So far, we’ve mentioned the concept of grammatical mood in passing when distinguishing the indicative from the subjunctive mood. Now, we’ll take more time to establish what “grammatical mood” is and what the other moods are. 

As we will see, the mood of a sentence is not about its emotion. It is about how you describe the action. The mood of a verb tells the reader something regarding the tone or quality of the sentence (source).

The mood of a verb can express a statement of fact (indicative), a command or request (imperative), a question (interrogative), an if-then statement (conditional), or a hypothetical (subjunctive). These are five categories of mood.

The Indicative vs. Subjunctive Mood

The two most relevant moods for our discussion are the indicative and the subjunctive. When you change a sentence from a statement of fact, “he was sad,” to a statement of possibility, “if he were sad,” you are changing the mood of the sentence.

A statement of fact is what we call the “indicative mood”; a statement of possibility is the “subjunctive mood.”

Using the Indicative Mood With “He”

If using “were” with “he” sounds unnatural, there is a reason. While the verb “were” is correct with “he” when in the subjunctive mood, it is incorrect for the indicative mood. Since we use the indicative mood more often, “were” is typically the incorrect verb for “he.”

Grammarians call it the indicative mood because we use it to indicate something. In other words, we use it when making factual statements about things that have happened or are happening. The vast majority of verbs within the English language are in this mood. 

When using the indicative mood, you would not use “were” with a singular pronoun like “he.” Instead, “were” combines with plural nouns and pronouns in this mood. For instance, if you wanted to describe how a man felt after returning home from a hard day’s work, you might say:

  • He was tired after work.

In this case, you would not use “were.” However, if you wanted to tell me that both a man and his wife were exhausted from their day, you would say:

  • They were tired after work. 

Notice that we use “were” in the second instance but not in the first. That is because the first sentence describes one person (singular) while the second describes at least two (plural). In the past indicative, you’ll use “was” for a singular subject and “were” for plural.

Using the Subjunctive Mood With “He”

On the other hand, we use the subjunctive mood specifically when someone’s presenting a hypothetical situation. That’s why you will often use words such as “if” and “wish” when using “were” with “he.”

Also, in the past-tense subjunctive mood, we consistently use the be-verb “were” with all personal pronouns, even in the first- and third-person, as we’ve demonstrated with “he,” “she,” and “us.” 

The only thing you have to look out for is the mood of the sentence — if you’re making a hypothetical statement, use “were,” but if you’re making a statement that simply happened in the past, use “was.”

Here are some more examples of using the subjunctive mood so you get an even better understanding of when “were” can operate with “he” and when it can’t.

  • If he were trained, he wouldn’t have dropped the dishes.
  • He walks as if he were 80 years old.
  • She looked at him as if he were a space alien.

Each of the above sentences presents different possibilities that may or may not be true. The final example says someone looks at the person “as if he were a space alien.” This sentence uses the subjunctive because he — presumably — is not a space alien.

For more on the indicative vs. the subjunctive, check out “If That Were True or If That Was True: Indicative or Subjunctive Mood.”

Using “He” and “Were” With a Conditional Clause

Additionally, you might want to use “he” and “were” to form an if-then statement. For this, you will need another mood — the conditional mood. Because the subjunctive tells us a possibility and the conditional mood shows an if-then, these two moods work quite well together.

The conditional mood typically involves words like “might,” “would,” and “could.” For example, look at the sentence:

  • If he were to train hard, he could win the race.

Notice that the first clause, “If he were to train hard,” is in the subjunctive while the second, “he could win the race,” is in the conditional. In these kinds of hypothetical situations, the subjunctive describes a possibility (“if”), and the conditional shows what could happen because of that possibility (source).

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Here are some other examples of the subjunctive with the conditional mood:

  • If he were to lose his key, he would have no way back in the building.
  • If he were to apply himself, he just might get an A.
  • Were he to ask, she would probably go out with him.

Each of the above shows what would happen if something else were true. If someone were to apply himself, he could get a good grade. If he does not apply himself, he might not earn an A.

Final Thoughts

It can be tricky seeing “he were” in a sentence after learning the indicative mood. After all, “he were” is incorrect in the indicative mood! But now you know that “he were” is correct in the subjunctive mood and that it tells us when a situation is hypothetical or imagined.

So there it is. By now, you should have a pretty good grasp on when “were” functions with the masculine personal pronoun “he.” If you still don’t fully understand, you may wish to take a look at another article on the subjunctive mood; “I Wish I Was or I Wish I Were: Past Tense and the Subjunctive Mood.”