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When You Can Use “You Were”

We use the verb “to be” in so many different tenses and roles. For native speakers or people with a lot of exposure to English, the conjugation and forms of “to be” just sound natural. But sometimes, you’ll hear “to be” in a sentence and think, “That just doesn’t sound right.” So, the question stands: Can we say “you were”?

We certainly can say “you were” since it is the proper way to conjugate the verb “to be” in the past. Since “to be” is an irregular verb, it can be tricky to get just the right conjugation for every usage, but “you were” is correct. So, we can almost always say “you were,” just as long as we’re talking about the verb “to be” in the past tense. 

Let’s take a look at how we use the tense form of the verb “to be” and how we incorporate it into different types of sentences.

Can We Say “You Were”?

You can use “you were” when you want to express something about the subject “you” that was true in the past. You can also use “you were” before a present participle (verb-ing); in this case, the word “were” is a helping verb that helps to set up the past continuous tense.

Check out these examples for a clearer understanding of when you can use “you were.”

  • You were three years old when we vacationed in the mountains.

This sentence describes a state of being in the past, so we use the simple past form of “to be,” which gives us “you were” as our subject and verb.

  • You were selected to represent the class in the math tournament.

This sentence uses the passive voice to explain a situation in the past, so we use the simple past form of “to be” as a helping verb before the past participle. Again, we see this structure “you were.”

  • I called while you were taking a shower, so you didn’t answer the phone.

In this example, you can see how the verb “to be” is a helping verb. Since the verb describes an action that started in the past and continued for a time, we used the past continuous tense. And, since the subject was “you,” we used the form “were” before the gerund (“taking”) 

Can We Say “He Were”?

There is only one case where it’s acceptable to say “he were,” and it’s in a type 2 conditional sentence. This means that if you’re explaining a hypothetical, unreal, or impossible situation with a conditional sentence, you can use the structure “he were.” This is the only case where that’s possible.

Check out these examples of type 2 conditionals that use the singular third person with the word “were”:

  • If he were the president of the United States, he would cancel all debt.
  • She would make friends with all of the woodland animals if she were a princess.
  • If it weren’t so rainy and cloudy, we would have gone for a picnic today.

We’ll explain more about type 2 conditionals later in the article.

Can I Say “I Were”?

There is only one case where it’s acceptable to say “I were,” and it’s in a type 2 conditional sentence. In fact, one of the most popular examples of a type 2 conditional starts with the phrase, “If I were you.” 

Grammarians consider this a type 2 conditional because I can never be you, so anything that follows is a hypothetical, unreal, or impossible situation.

Here are a few examples so you can see the grammar in action:

  • If I were you, I wouldn’t stick my finger in the electrical plug.
  • I would have been able to buy a car if I were earning more money.
  • If I were a bird, I would fly high above the city.

“Were” as the Past Tense of the Verb “To Be”

The verb “to be” is one of the most popular and common words in English, even though it doesn’t follow the standard rules of verb conjugation. This nonconformity is because “to be” is an irregular verb, which means we have to conjugate it differently from the standard verbs.

If English is your first language, conjugating the verb “to be” was probably something you mastered between ages two and four (source). Most kids misuse this irregular verb for up to a year before fully understanding and applying the rules correctly.

For most people learning English as a second language, however, conjugating the verb “to be” is one of the first lessons that they learn. It’s even a common scene in TV shows or movies: a classroom full of language learners repeating “I am, I was; you are, you were,” etc.

So, whether you acquired the verb “to be” over several months as a young child or it was one of the first things that you learned in your English language class, it’s essential to get this conjugation correct. 

Let’s consider the conjugation of the verb “to be” in the present and past tense and then check out its role as a helping verb.

Conjugating “To Be”

In English, you can see the verb “to be” in every tense, although some tenses are more popular than the others (source). Take a look at the following chart to see how it breaks down: 

Simple presentamareareisare
Simple pastwaswerewerewaswere
Simple futureWill beWill beWill beWill beWill be
Present continuousAm being Are beingAre beingIs beingAre being
Past continuousWas beingWere beingWere beingWas beingWere being
Future continuous Will be beingWill be beingWill be beingWill be beingWill be being
Present perfectHave beenHave beenHave beenHas beenHave been
Past perfectHad beenHad beenHad beenHad beenHad been
Future perfectWill have beenWill have beenWill have beenWill have beenWill have been
Present perfect continuousHave been beingHave been beingHave been beingHas been beingHave been being
Past perfect continuousHad been beingHad been beingHad been beingHad been beingHad been being
Future perfect continuousWill have been beingWill have been beingWill have been beingWill have been beingWill have been being

Pinpointing “You Were”

Take a closer look at the highlighted examples, which feature “you were.” In the past simple tense, we always use “were” with “you” to explain a situation or state of being in the past. This holds for structures that aren’t simple sentences, as well.

For instance, if you use the subject “you” and the verb “to be” in a noun clause, you need to use “were” for the past tense of “to be.” Take a look at this example:

We didn’t see you at the meeting yesterday, and we were all wondering where you were.

In this example, “you were” is the subject and verb of a noun clause, not of the whole sentence. However, we still use the simple past tense form of the verb “to be;” that is, we must use “you were” in the noun clause, too.

Basically, you can use “you were” to express situations in the past that apply to a second-person subject; this is true when you’re using “to be” as a helping verb, too. 

For more information about using the verb “to be” in different structures and contexts, check out articles “Here Is or Here Are: Understanding Subject-Verb Agreement” and “Can You End a Sentence with Is?

“Were” as a Helping Verb

Image by Mohamed Hasan via Pixabay

It’s also important to remember that the verb “to be” often acts as a helping verb, especially in the continuous tenses and in passive structures. This holds true for the verb “to be” in every tense, but we’re going to look specifically at the tenses that use “you were.”

Essentially, if you’re using the past continuous tense or a passive structure in the past with the subject “you,” then you need to use the structure “you were.”

For the passive structure, you’ll use a past participle form of a verb (sometimes called “verb 3”) directly after “you were.” Be careful, though: there’s a myth that including a form of “to be” in the sentence automatically makes it passive. However, this isn’t true (source). 

If there is no past participle (verb 3) after “to be,” then the sentence remains active.

You might also see the structure “you were” right before the present participle form of a verb. (verb+ing). This indicates the past continuous tense, and it describes an action that started in the past, continued for an amount of time, and then ended in the past (source). 

In this case, you’ll use “you were” right before the present participle to show the past continuous.

So, in addition to using “you were” to show a state of being or fact about the past, you can also use this structure as a subject with the helping verb. To build a passive structure, add a past participle to “you were.” To build a past continuous structure, add a present participle to “you were.” 

“You Were” in Questions

Remember, the form changes a bit when you ask a question with the verb “to be.” To ask a yes/no question, you need to change the order of subject and verb, like this:

  • Were you at the meeting yesterday?

To ask an information question, you need to add a question word at the beginning and switch the order of the subject and verb, like this:

  • Where were you yesterday? 

To ask a tag question, you should switch the order of the subject and verb and then add it to the end of the sentence, like this:

  • You weren’t at the meeting yesterday, were you?

In this example, notice how the main sentence keeps the subject and verb in their original positions. You only change the order of the subject and verb for the tag at the end of the sentence.

Image by Niek Verlaan via Pixabay

Exception: Type 2 Conditionals

There is one big exception to the conjugation of the verb “to be.” This exception is about type 2 conditionals, which explain hypothetical, unreal, or impossible situations for the present or future (source).

A conditional sentence includes two parts: a dependent clause that usually begins with “if” to describe the condition and an independent clause (or complete sentence) that explains what will happen if the condition is met. 

You can build a type 2 conditional with “if” plus simple past tense for the dependent clause and a complete sentence with a subject, the modal “would,” and the simple form of the verb (also called “verb 1”). The formula looks like this:

IF + (simple past), (subject) WOULD + (verb 1) + (object). 

In type 2 conditionals, every subject can take “were” as a form of “to be,” regardless of its person or number. This means that every subject can use “were” in a conditional type 2 sentence.

You’ve probably heard the most common example of this exception from a friend who wants to give you some gentle advice: “If I were you….” Of course, it’s impossible for your friend to become you, so they express this idea with conditional type 2. Here, you can see how “I were” is correct in this specific case.

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Remember, using “were” with any subject is only acceptable if you’re using a type 2 conditional sentence. 

Final Thoughts

It is absolutely correct to use “you were,” especially when you’re using the simple past tense form of “to be” to describe a situation or state of being in the past. 

You can use “you were” plus a past participle (verb 3) to build a passive structure. Or, you can use “you were” plus a present participle (verb-ing) to build a past continuous structure.

In general, “you were” is the best way to describe the past tense of the verb “to be” when you’re talking or writing about a second-person subject.