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Is “Was Only” Past Tense?

When working on a writing assignment or talking with a friend, sometimes it’s tough to figure out if you should use the past or present tense with “was only.” “Is “was only” past tense?”

The phrase “was only” is past tense since “was” is the simple past tense form of the verb “to be,” with the present tense phrase being “is only.” You can use “was only” when referring to a degree or measurement, a time frame, or an unexpected or disappointing outcome.

Trying to figure out when and if you should write in the past tense can be a challenge. While “was only” is a helpful phrase, navigating how to use it properly can be tricky. Keep reading to find out the different ways you can use “was only” in a sentence with confidence.

Can We Use Past Tense With Was?

Grammatically, “was” is the past tense form of the verb “to be.” Therefore, using “was” in the past tense is not only correct but recommended in most cases.  

The verb “to be” means to exist. Thus, another way of conveying existence in a sentence is to use the verb “is,” which is a derivative of “to be” (source).

Example:

  • The town is small.
  • The cat is fat.

Remember that a verb is often an action word expressing what someone or something does. However, in this case, the verb “is,” which we’ve indicated in red, expresses being. 

“Was” is the past tense form of “is.” Notice in the following examples that the sentence changes to the past tense when “is” changes to “was.”

Examples:

  • The town was small.
  • The cat was fat.

When you add “only” to the stative verb “was,” you are writing in the past tense and using “only” as an adjective or adverb. The word “only” has a few meanings, but they are all closely related. Take a look at the definitions of “only” below before we discuss more about how you can use “was only” in your writing:

  • Without others or anything further
  • No more than
  • Being the single one or few of a kind

When Do You Use “Was Only” in a Sentence?

If you want to convey a degree or measurement of something that happened in the past, you may want to use this phrase.

Examples:

  • It was only a game, but he took it so seriously.
  • He was only doing the right thing.

In the above examples, the speaker is not speaking in real time. Instead, as the past tense indicates the second clause of the first sentence, they are recalling something that happened already.

You can use “was only” in its adverb form in a few different ways. An adverb expresses the relation of place, degree, or circumstance of a verb or another adverb. Generally, you would use it when referring to the degree of something, establishing time, or alluding to an unexpected outcome.

Note that the “only” in “was only” usually indicates a lesser degree, a smaller time frame, or a smaller outcome than expected.  

Using “Was Only” in Terms of Degree

To determine a slightly lesser degree than usual for something that happened in the past, you can use “was only.” You can also interchange this by using “was just” instead (source).

Examples:

  • I was only joking. I didn’t mean to offend you.
  • I was just joking. I didn’t mean to offend you.
  • I smelled smoke, but it was only the popcorn I left in the microwave for too long.
  • I smelled smoke, but it was just the popcorn I left in the microwave for too long.

Notice that in the examples above, you would write the rest of the sentence or statement following “was only” or “was just” in the past tense. This is because “was only” is a past tense phrase.

Note the tense in this next example.

Examples:

  • The baby was only crying because she was wet, so I changed her diaper.
  • The baby was just crying because she was wet, so I changed her diaper.

To determine a slightly lesser degree than usual for something happening in the present tense, you can use “is only” or “is just” instead. Remember that “is” is the present tense form of the verb “to be,” while “was” is the past tense form.

Examples: 

  • She is only going outside to get some air.
  • She is just going outside to get some air.
  • He is only in his sophomore year, but Scott plays soccer for the varsity team.
  • He is just in his sophomore year, but Scott plays soccer for the varsity team.

You’ll notice that in this example, the rest of the statement following “is only” is in the present tense.

When you write about more than one subject, you’ll need to use the plural form of the verb. In that case, rather than “was” or “is,” you’ll use “are” instead. Below are two examples:

  • They are only friends, but she wants something more.
  • They are just friends, but she wants something more.

“Are” replaces “is” in this example as it takes on its plural form. Also, notice that this plural form is in the present tense. The following example is what it would look like in the past tense.

  • They were only friends, but she wanted something more.
  • They were just friends, but she wanted something more.

Using “Was Only” to Establish Time or Tense

To indicate that something happened as a result of something else in the past, you can use “was only.” To do this, you can write it in one of two ways:

  • It + “was only” + when
  • It + “was only” + after

Then, write the rest of your sentence in the past tense. 

Examples:

  • It was only after Ben spoke to his father that they started to repair their relationship.
  • It was only when they saw the video footage that they were able to catch the thief.

Notice that the second part of the sentence in the above sentences could not happen without the first. Thus, Ben and his father could not repair their relationship if Ben had not spoken to his father first. And, they were not able to catch the thief until after they saw the video footage. 

If you want to establish that something has happened as a result of something else in the present tense, you can use “is only.”

  • It + is only + when…
  • It + is only + after…

Examples:

  • It is only when the baby sees his mother that he reaches for her.
  • It is only after Laura’s favorite song comes on that she starts to dance.

Like the past tense sentence examples, the first part of the sentence triggers the later portion. The baby does not reach for his mother until after he sees her. Laura does not start dancing until after her favorite song comes on. 

Also, notice that the speaker is speaking in the present tense even though the second part of the sentence cannot occur without the initial part happening first. In this case, you write or say the sentences as if you are narrating them in real-time. 

Using “Was Only” to Convey Something as Smaller than Expected

You can use the phrase, “was only,” to help communicate that something like the size or age of something, the number or amount of something, or even the percentage of something is smaller than you expected (source).

In this scenario, the structure is:

  •  Subject + “was only” + quantity…

Examples: 

  • There was only one performance that night, but the dancer did an amazing job.
  • The little girl was only three years old, but she could sing like an adult.
  • There was only one man who could stand against an army of assassins.

In the above examples, you write or say the rest of the sentence in the past tense. Take note of the past tense verb in this next example. 

Example:

  • She was only five feet tall, but Tamara was the fiercest model on the runway.

Also, notice that the beginning of the sentence expresses a quantity that you would normally consider small. Still, the second part of the sentence reveals an outcome of a higher degree than you expected. In the example above, the model was short at five feet tall, but she was fierce enough to be one of the best runway models in the show. 

The seemingly small number in these examples still has a large impact on the outcome of the sentence. 

If you want to show the same meaning of someone or something being smaller than expected in the present tense, you can change “was only” to “is only.”

The sentence structure is about the same as well. 

  • Subject + “is only” + quantity…

Examples:

  • Max is only 14 years old, but he is already applying for his master’s at MIT.
  • It is only nine in the morning, and I already want to go home and go to bed.
  • There are only two cinnamon rolls left; who wants them?

In each of the examples above, the second clause is in the present tense as if you are narrating what is occurring in real time.

In the last example above, you’ll notice that “is” changes to “are” because it refers to more than one item. Again, in the next example, notice the usage of “are” when the subject is plural.

Example:

  • There are only two rules, but you must follow them.

Is “Was Always” Past Tense? 

“Was always” is also a past tense phrase. One of the only times you’ll use “was always” in a sentence that resembles the present tense is when you want to convey intent, but this is actually called the past continuous tense. This is a sentence that conveys an event that starts in the past and continues to the present. 

The sentence structure for this is:

  • Subject + “was always” + going to/planning to + Present Tense Verb

Example:

  • Sam was always going to put her clothes away, but her mom didn’t know that.
  • The teacher was always planning to surprise the students with a pop quiz. 

Notice that the participles “going” and “planning” are in the present tense, even though the subject performed the act of planning or intending to do something in the past and continued for a time.

In this way, “was only” is still a past tense phrase, even if the other verbs in the sentence structure are in the present tense form.   

Is “Was” a Simple Past Tense Verb?

Both “was” and “were” are simple past tense forms of the verb “to be.” Simple past tense communicates an event or action that happened in the past by using a simple past tense verb. 

  • James took the book. 

When to Use “Were” or “Was”

To determine when to use one or the other, you must consider the speaker’s point of view. These tables demonstrate how to use “was” and “were” based on the speaker’s point of view. 

First-Person Singular IWas
Third-Person Singular He/She/ItWas
Point of view and was
First-Person Plural WeWere
Second-Person YouWere
Third-Person Plural TheyWere
Point of view and were

Whether you say or write the sentence from the first-person, second-person, or third-person point of view will determine when you use “was” and “were” in the sentence (source).

Examples:

  • You were walking down the street when you saw a large dog, correct?
  • He was on his way to the gas station when his car ran out of gas.
  • Billy and Sally were playing on the playground.
  • I was finishing my homework when my favorite show came on.

Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “If I Were You?”

It is correct to use the phrase  “If I were you.” This phrase is in the subjunctive mood, meaning it’s a hypothetical statement, so you use the verb “were” when you write it.

When you use “were” in a sentence, you must not only consider the speaker’s point of view but whether or not it is indicative (real or known) or subjunctive (hypothetical or speculative) (source).

If “was” or “were” are in the past tense indicative, they follow the same point of view rules that we mentioned above. To use the indicative mood for “was,” your sentence must reference something real or known. 

The sentence structure for this type of sentence looks like this: 

  • Subject + “was/were + verb-ing/adjective…

Examples:

  • The sky was cloudy today, so the colors of the sunset didn’t show very well.
  • The animals were lively this morning. Spring is definitely in the air.
  • I was running to catch the train when I fell and busted my knee.
  • You were watching the bank because you planned to rob it, didn’t you?

These sentences are all past tense retellings of something that actually happened or was known to happen. Even if the sentence is speculative, like the last example, you would write or say it as a matter-of-fact statement and not a hypothetical scenario. 

Is Saying, “If I Were a Boy” Correct?

If you are expressing a hypothetical situation or something not true at the moment, using “were” in the phrase “If I were a boy” is generally correct. 

This table shows when to use “was” or “were” in terms of the indicative or subjunctive forms. 

Like the phrase “If I were you,” “If I were a boy” is subjunctive or hypothetical.

Point of ViewIndicativeSubjunctive
I/He/She/ItWasWere
WeWereWere
YouWereWere
TheyWereWere

When you write with this sentence structure, it is best to follow this formula: 

  • If + subject + “were” + adjective/verb-ing…

Examples:

  • If I were you, I would not get on my mother’s bad side.
  • If Gene were stronger, he could protect his friends from bullies.
  • If you were coming home now, I would order the food.
  • If they were older, they could see the movie.

These sentences are all hypothetical desires that you would write in the past tense. Therefore, it is not correct to write this type of hypothetical sentence in the present tense.

This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

To learn more about how to express a desire using “was” or “were,” check out the article, “I Wish I Was or I Wish I Were: Past Tense and the Subjunctive Mood.”

Final Thoughts

“Was” is the past tense form of the verb “to be,” so the phrase “was only” is past tense as well. “Was only” usually refers to an event in the past, and the use of “were only” replaces “was only” depending on how you use it. 

The rules about using “was only” and “were only” can change depending on whether the sentence is in the indicative or subjunctive mood or whether the subject is singular or plural.