English is full of grammar rules that make the language so interesting and sometimes frustrating to learn for second language learners. One such rule is that of verb moods and whether we should say, “if that were true” or “if that was true.”
When writing about hypothetical or non-realistic situations, the subjunctive “if that were true” is the best choice, while “if that was true” is best for indicative past-tense sentences. The usage of these two past-tense phrases depends on whether you intend to write in the indicative or subjunctive mood.
To better understand the reasoning behind these rules, let’s look at how the use of “was” and “were” differs between their indicative use and the subjunctive use of “were.” We’ll also cover other grammatical moods, such as the conditional and how we use them with the subjunctive.
“Was” vs. ”Were” in the Indicative Mood
Before discussing the subjunctive mood in detail, let’s first look at the verbs “was” and “were” and their meanings and usage in the indicative. The indicative mood simply expresses a statement of fact (source).
The verbs “was” and “were” both come from the verb “to be” and are in the past tense. The difference between the two words in the indicative is that “was” is past-tense singular, and “were” is past-tense plural.
The word “was” refers to one person or object as being in a previous moment of time, while “were” refers to many people or things being in a moment prior (source).
Examples of singular subjects in a past-tense situation:
- I was worn out, so I took a nap.
- That was the best cake I have ever eaten.
Examples of plural subjects in a past-tense situation:
- The children were playing in the park when it began to rain.
- All flights were canceled due to the storm.
- They were eating dinner when John popped in for a visit.
“If That Were True” vs. “If That Was True”
In contrast, the phrase “if that were true” is in the subjunctive mood, which we use to express wishes, desires, doubts, and suggestions or explore a hypothetical situation. The combination of the conjunction “if” and the stative verb “were” are common in the subjunctive mood.
- If that were true, they would not have made it out alive.
- They would have passed the exam if that were true.
- Even if that were true, many refugees might never be able to return.
Notice how the subjunctive indicates something that was either an unlikely possibility or something that had not occurred. In other words, it often refers to something contrary to fact.
In contrast, the phrase “if that was true” is in the indicative mood, which we use to express a statement of fact.
- Mark told me he had won the lottery. I asked if that was true.
- Jenny said she was alone. Who knows if that was true?
- Really? I am going to find out if that was true.
While the subjunctive expresses an unreal conditional statement, we can use “was” here in the indicative for a statement that might be true or a possibility that did occur.
For more on the indicative vs. the subjunctive mood, make sure you read our article, “I Wish I Was or I Wish I Were: Past Tense and the Subjunctive Mood.”
Which Is Correct: “What if I Were Rich” or “What if I Was Rich?”
With an informed understanding of grammatical moods and the use of “was” and “were,” we can now apply the same reasoning as to whether “what if I were rich” or “what if I was rich” is correct.
The correct expression is “what if I were rich,” as it expresses the subjunctive mood. As we know, the subjunctive mood expresses desires, wishes, suggestions, or hypothetical situations.
In this case, the person speaking is dreaming about what they would do in the future if they were rich.
- I can’t afford to travel the world, but what if I were rich?
- When she said she didn’t want to go out with me, I responded, “What if I were rich?”
The Subjunctive vs. the Indicative Mood
Generally, a mood expresses a feeling such as happiness or sadness. However, grammatical moods are helpful to denote the tone or quality of a verb in a sentence, making the intention of the writer or speaker clear (source).
Again, the subjunctive mood is the form of the verb we use for expressing wishes, desires, doubts, and suggestions or exploring a hypothetical situation (source).
We generally indicate this grammatical mood using an indicative verb before the subjunctive verb, such as “wish” or “suggest.” While we cannot use “were” with all pronouns in the simple past tense, we use it with any pronoun in the subjunctive mood.
- I wish I were in Greece.
- If I were in their situation, I would leave the country.
- I wouldn’t do that if I were you!
It is essential to note that when using the subjunctive mood to describe a hypothetical situation, as in a wish or an impossible event, we always use “were” instead of “was.”
As we mentioned briefly, the indicative mood is the verb form we use to express a factual statement. We call it the indicative mood because it serves to indicate that something that is true or that we expect to be true.
We can use the indicative mood in the past, present, or future tense, and it is more common than the imperative or subjunctive mood. We can also use the indicative in either a declarative sentence (a statement) or an interrogative sentence (a question).
For instance, one of the examples we used earlier with “If that was true” used the indicative in an interrogative sentence.
Below, we’ve provided an example of a declarative sentence in the past indicative:
- She graduated last year with a Ph.D. in Mathematics.
Here, we have an example of a declarative sentence in the present indicative:
- He is taking his entrance exam for the university.
Next, we have an interrogative sentence in the future indicative:
- Are you going to deliver your speech tomorrow?
Verbs in the past indicative describe things that have happened or that someone believes to have happened at some point in the past.
- Jack left his house and walked to school.
- We had lived in England for five years before returning to South Africa
- Sara was looking online for help with her homework problem.
- I had been studying French at the time, but my real interest was in Japanese literature.
The Subjunctive Mood With “Be” and “Were”
The subjunctive mood uses “be” or “were” to convey an unreal conditional situation, which can be grammatically complicated. When the subjunctive is in the present tense, the verb “be” remains unchanged according to its subject (source).
Regardless of the subject’s perspective, the subjunctive form of the verb “to be” is “be” for the present tense, while it is “were” for the past tense. It is also essential that you note the present subjunctive mostly refers to events that will happen in the future.
- I want his teacher to be present during my visit to the school.
- The mayor asked that everyone be on time.
- I propose that you all be present at the meeting.
When the subjunctive is in the past tense, the verb “be” changes to “were,” even for first- and third-person singular pronouns.
- If I were in the play, I would play the lead role.
- If I were in your place, I would take the money.
- He wished he were able to give his employees raises.
Using the Subjunctive Mood With the Conditional
You will often see a subjunctive verb appear in a sentence with two clauses. Remember, a clause is part of a sentence that contains a subject and verb, expressing a complete thought. When using the subjunctive, one clause typically contains the subjunctive verb and the other the indicative verb.
- I wish it were real.
- If it were me, I’d go.
The second example includes a subjunctive clause and a conditional clause, and we often use the subjunctive and the conditional together.
The Conditional Mood
We use five categories of grammatical mood in grammar that range from expressing facts, commands, and questions to conditions, wishes, or possibilities (source).
So far, we’ve mentioned the indicative, subjunctive, and interrogative moods, but there are also the conditional and imperative moods.
The imperative mood is the verb form we use to express a direct command or instruction with a demanding tone, while the conditional mood is the form of the verb used to express a condition statement.
A condition statement is a request or proposition that is dependent on whether or not something happens. A conditional mood sentence contains a modal auxiliary verb like “would” or “could” that supports the main verb. For this reason, the conditional mood often works well with the subjunctive mood.
- If you want to go to the movies, you should finish your homework.
- Had Richard not wasted so much time, he could have finished the project on time.
- I would like a glass of water, please.
The conditional mood is the form of the verb that expresses something that would happen if there was a change of circumstances. To demonstrate this, we use a conditional clause with the main clause. We refer to the different arrangements of the clauses as the first, second, and third conditional (source).
When we combine subjunctive clauses with conditional clauses, we are using either the second or third conditional.
Using “Were” With the Second Conditional
We use the second conditional if we want to talk about things in the present or future that are either untrue or impossible. The second conditional contains an if clause in the simple past or subjunctive, and the main clause contains the results in the present or future tense (source).
We can structure the sentence so that the if clause comes first or after the main clause.
- If I were rich, I would travel around the world.
- She would travel the world if she were rich.
- If he won the lottery, he would buy a new car.
- He would buy a new car if he won the lottery.
As you can see, the second conditional describes something that is possible but will almost certainly not happen. In contrast, the first conditional describes something that is possible and could really happen.
- If I have enough money, I will go to Japan.
The first conditional also uses the simple present instead of the simple past in the if clause. For this reason, you will not use “were” in the first conditional.
Using “Were” With the Third Conditional
The third conditional helps us refer to something in the past that did not occur. We use an if clause containing the past perfect with a clause that explains what would have happened had someone or something met the condition (source).
- If I were rich, I could have purchased that Lamborghini.
- If that were true, he would’ve been here.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
To learn more about the perfect tense, we recommend that you read “Has Been or Had Been: How to Use the Perfect Tense.”
Grammatical mood can be confusing, but it helps to consider if you’re referring to a hypothetical situation or one that is true or likely to be true. Most of the time, “If that were true” is correct, but it is possible to use “if that was true” in the indicative.
“If that were true” is in the subjunctive mood, which we use for hypothetical or non-realistic situations, while “if that was true” would only be acceptable in the indicative. We often use the subjunctive mood in combination with the conditional mood in the second and third conditional.