You might know the song from Fiddler on the Roof that goes “If I were a rich man.” And if you do, you might have wondered why the words didn’t go “If I was a rich man.” After all, isn’t it true that “was” is singular and “were” is plural? “I were” simply sounds wrong!
But you may be surprised to learn that the use of “were” in the song is actually correct. The issue is one of what is known as “mood.” And the verb in “If I were a rich man” is in what grammarians call the subjunctive mood.
Did you know that verbs could have “moods”? They do, but different kinds of “moods” than emotional states. When we’re talking about the “moods” of verbs, we aren’t talking about being happy or sad, but something quite different.
All verbs are said to have a mood of some kind or other. Thankfully, there are only three common moods in English: declarative, interrogative, and imperative.
1.) The verbs in statements like the following are said to be in the declarative mood.
He has sometimes eaten an entire pizza for dinner.
This program is designed to help student writing.
She will finish the project by tomorrow.
The verbs “has…eaten,” “is designed,” and “will finish” each make statements or declare something.
2.) On the other hand, verbs that ask questions are said to be in the interrogative mood. Consider the following:
Has he ever eaten a whole pizza for dinner?
Is this program designed to help student writing?
Will she finish the project by tomorrow?
Here, the verbs “has…eaten,” “is…designed,” and “will…finish” all ask questions or interrogate the listener.
3.) And, finally, verbs can give orders. They are said to be in the imperative mood:
Don’t eat that whole pizza.
Design a program to help student writing.
Finish the project by tomorrow.
Here the speaker is acting in an imperious manner by giving orders. That’s where we get the word imperative from.
If you think about these examples, the mood of the verb has to do with how the speaker chooses to address someone when talking about an action or event. The speaker wants either to inform (declarative), or to ask (interrogative), or to order (imperative) the person spoken to.
So, now let’s get back to the subjunctive mood, which is far less common in English than the first three. This is a strange mood in which the speaker is talking about something that isn’t and couldn’t possibly be true. When the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof says “I wish I were a rich man,” we know for sure that a) he isn’t rich and b) he has no realistic hope of ever being so. He’s describing an imaginary situation.
Many English speakers are familiar with the expression “if I were.” Unfortunately, they often use it exclusively after the conjunction “if.” However, “if I was” is very often the correct choice. It all depends on the factuality of the situation. Just compare the following two utterances:
“My new colleague is awfully nosey. He wanted to know if I was earning more than he was.”
“I sure wouldn’t be working extra hours this weekend if I were earning more than he was.”
In the first sentence the speaker is relating an actual fact, a real situation. In the second, the speaker is talking about a situation that is contrary to fact, it’s imaginary.
So what’s the take-away lesson about the subjunctive mood? Use “if I were…” to suggest something that isn’t true, a hypothetical, or a wish.
If only I were sitting on a beach right now…
Useful samples and examples: