Phrases like “if I that were the case” and “if that was the case” can cause confusion even for the most experienced English language learner. If you’re wondering which one is correct, the answer is both. The good news: it’s pretty easy to figure out which one you should use.
When speaking hypothetically, if that were the case is correct. When speaking factually, if that was the case is correct. Choosing which one to use is dependent on the context of your conversation. Each is grammatically correct when used appropriately.
When it comes to understanding which phrase is correct and when you should use “were” versus “was,” you’ll need to understand more about moods in writing, specifically the indicative versus subjunctive mood. Read on to learn more.
“If That Were the Case” Versus “If That Was the Case”: Differences in Meaning
The main difference between the phrases “if that were the case” and “if that was the case” is the grammatical concept of subjunctive mood versus indicative mood. “If that were the case” is an example of the subjunctive mood, while “if that was the case” is indicative.
When we use the term “mood” concerning grammar, we’re talking about whether the verb in your sentence expresses a fact, a hypothetical situation, a question, a command, or a condition (source).
Nonetheless, both of these phrases have quite similar meanings. You are essentially expressing that if something happens or happened, whether real or hypothetical, you would respond or react in a particular way.
Another way to think about these phrases is that when you use them, you are showing that your awareness of an action or event would thus result in a specific consequence or outcome.
We’ll go through all of the different “moods” you can use in your writing a bit further in the article, but first, we’ll focus primarily on the difference between the subjunctive mood and indicative mood so that you can determine whether you should use the word “was” or “were.”
Understanding Subjunctive Mood
The subjunctive mood refers to a hypothetical situation or state of being (source). It is in contrast to reality and reflects wishful thinking, a hope, desire, or imaginary situation.
The most common way you’ll see the subjunctive mood is in combination with “if” clauses. In other words, “if X, then Y.” You may also see these types of hypothetical or unreal conditional clauses in combination with “would” or “could.” For example, “If it were possible, I would have picked you up.”
When it comes to answering whether you should write “if that were the case” versus “if that was the case,” it’s as easy as knowing whether or not the situation you are writing or speaking about is something that happened in reality or that is hypothetical in nature.
If a situation is hypothetical, it means that it is not real or true; it is not a factual event (source). In the subjunctive case, you’ll always use “were.”
So, you might write something like the sentences below:
- If I were you, I would take the job offer.
- If I were rich, I would own four cars.
These examples reflect situations that are not real but rather are imagined or hypothetical. For example, the speaker cannot literally be another person in the first sentence. And in the second, the speaker is not rich and famous but rather is expressing an idea about what they would do if they were.
If you apply this concept to the phrases “if that were the case” versus “if that was the case,” you’ll need to ask yourself if what you are communicating is hypothetical. If it is, then you’ll choose “if that were the case” rather than “was the case.”
The only time you can use “if that was the case” is when you are speaking factually about something that happened in reality at some point in the past.
Using “If That Were the Case” in the Subjunctive Mood
Imagine for a moment that you are speaking to a friend about the idea of winning the lottery. While most of us will not see a winning lottery ticket in our lifetime, it doesn’t mean we can’t hope for one!
If you are speaking about what you would do with the money you wish you could win playing the lottery, you would be speaking in the subjunctive mood, given it is a hypothetical situation.
Here’s an example:
Question: Did you win the lottery?
Your response: If that were the case, I would not have come in to work today!
While both “to be” verbs “was” and “were” are past tense, you’ll use them differently in your writing. Remember that you cannot use “was” for the subjunctive mood. But you can use both “were” and “was” when writing with the past tense form.
Here’s a quick comparison chart that will help you differentiate between the past tense conjugation for “to be” versus the subjunctive conjugation:
|Simple Past Tense Conjugation – “to be”
|Subjunctive Conjugation – “to be”
You’ll notice that each conjugation for the subjunctive mood requires you to use “were,” not “was.” Thus, the only time you’ll write “if that were the case” is when you are speaking hypothetically about an imagined situation or event that did not happen in reality.
Understanding Indicative Mood
The indicative mood is the opposite of subjunctive mood in that rather than a hypothetical, desired, doubtful, or imagined situation, the indicative mood expresses factual information. This is when you’ll need to use “was,” not “were.”
Remember, with the phrase “if that was the case,” you’ll use “was” (rather than “were”) only when you are communicating factual information, events, or ideas that occurred in reality at some point in the past, whether a few minutes before or longer.
Remember, too, that while you’ll often see “if” clauses in the subjunctive mood, that doesn’t mean you won’t see them or can’t use them in the indicative mood. It simply means that the statement has to be concerning real events or things that have happened.
Here’s an example:
- If I knew that I had been wrong, I would have apologized sooner.
In this sentence, it is clear that some event occurred that resulted in the speaker stating they would have done something different had they realized they had been wrong. Therefore, it is in the indicative mood because the event — being wrong — occurred in reality.
Here’s another example that illustrates a quick comparison between these two moods and the usage of “were” (subjunctive) versus “was” (indicative):
- If she were to drive her children to school, they might make it on time.
This situation requires you to use “were” (not “was”) because the event did not happen but, rather, is a possibility. The keyword that you may have taken note of is “might.” Remember, when events are a possibility, you are writing in the subjunctive mood, and you’ll need to use “were.”
Conversely, here’s a similar sentence in the indicative mood, where the event did happen in reality:
- If she was late, it’s because she missed the bus.
Above, the subject (she) was indeed late — the event happened and was likely a result of missing the bus. It is in the indicative mood because it is something that happened; it is factual and requires you to use “was.”
Using “If That Was the Case” in the Indicative Mood
Remember that using the phrase “if that was the case” can be either correct or incorrect grammatically, depending on the context of your conversation.
Again, determining that depends on whether you are speaking of a real situation or an imagined one. Remember that you can only use “was” in this context if you are speaking of a real event.
Imagine that you are speaking to someone about a situation you were not aware of until that moment. The situation happened in reality and resulted in a consequence.
- He mentioned you don’t like chocolate. If that was the case, why didn’t you tell me?
In the sentence above, the situation is not hypothetical — the person does not like chocolate but did not inform the speaker that it was the case. You would not use “were” here because to not like chocolate cake is a fact, not an imagined or hypothetical scenario.
Here’s another example:
- I never realized you hate going to parties. If that was the case, why did you come?
Again, it is a fact that the person seems to dislike parties but went to one anyway. We’ve all been in situations where we are a little bit fearful of being honest — once someone learns the truth, they might use this phrase or a similar one.
Let’s go through one last example. Imagine you accepted a job, but you did not know what the pay would be. Once you found out, you were quite disappointed. You might say something like this:
He told me that the pay is only minimum wage. If that was the case, I would have never accepted the job.
Again, “was” is the correct conjugation here because the event is real. You will only use “were” if the situation is not based on a factual event but, rather, is hypothetical.
What About “If That’s the Case”?
If you use the phrase “if that’s the case” or “if that is the case,” you are speaking of a situation that is true or correct but also one that is conditional (source).
Unlike the subjunctive or indicative mood, the conditional mood in writing refers to a situation that may be uncertain or depend on another event happening (source). In other words, one action depends on another.
You’ll also notice that rather than “was” or “were,” the conjugated “to be” verb here is the present tense form, “is.” You can use this phrase when speaking to someone or writing about something that may happen (in the future) based on a present condition.
Imagine you are watching the weather and you learn that it will rain. You might say, “If that is the case, I will bring my raincoat.” The first part of the sentence is in the present tense conditional form, while the second clause uses “will + verb (bring).” The information the speaker hears is unreal but likely to occur based on the prior condition happening.
Many confuse the subjunctive mood and the conditional mood, given that both can be based on hypothetical situations. A phrase can also be both subjunctive and conditional at the same time.
It matters less that you can specifically distinguish the two and more that you understand that we use the subjunctive mood for hypothetical situations and the conditional when a particular condition results in an outcome.
Below is one more example illustrating how you can use the phrase “if that’s the case.”
- “The tickets are free,” she said. “If that’s the case, I’ll come!”
Above, the speaker’s willingness to attend is based on the condition that the tickets are free.
Other Moods in Writing
While we’ve talked about three separate “moods” in writing, there are more than that.
As a quick review, remember that the indicative mood expresses a fact, the subjunctive a wish or possibility, and the conditional mood expresses an idea that depends on a condition.
There are two other moods in writing as well, the interrogative mood and the imperative mood. These two are fairly easy and straightforward.
You would use the interrogative mood when asking questions, such as “What are you having for dinner?” or “In what mood is the sentence you are writing?”.
Conversely, the imperative mood is not a question but rather a command or instruction. In general, this mood doesn’t have a subject as part of the sentence, but rather you’ll use it to tell someone to do something, provide or offer advice, or give instruction.
Here’s a quick example illustrating the imperative mood: “Please bring your insurance card when you arrive at the doctor’s office.”
Synonyms: “If that Were the Case” and “If that Was the Case”
There aren’t too many words and phrases that are synonymous with both “if that were the case” and “if that was the case,” but there are a few you can choose if ever you are stuck on whether to use “was” or “were,” or if you just want to try something different.
- If that happens…
- Under those circumstances…
- Given that…
- In light of that…
- In the event that…
- Considering that…
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
You’ll likely need to change your phrasing a bit, so just be careful that when and if you choose a synonymous phrase, you reread your sentence to ensure it is both clear and correct.
Understanding the difference between “if that were the case” versus “if that was the case” isn’t all that challenging if you understand moods in writing.
As long as you can identify whether you are talking about a hypothetical situation or a factual one, it’s easy to know whether to use “were” or “was.” If it is a fact, you’ll need to choose “was.” On the other hand, if it is a possibility, a wish, a desire, or something else that has not happened in reality (yet or ever), then you’ll always choose “were.”
If you’d like to learn more about a similar phrase to the two we’ve covered here, take a look at “What Do We Mean by ‘Why Might This Be the Case?’” next.