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There was an interesting question for me today in my inbox. A friend asked, “Does ‘were’ always follow ‘if”?” Interesting because for a very long time I did not understand why that should be the case. We were not taught the correct form in school, and I think that instead of those essays and letters, school curriculum could have benefited so much more from simple lessons in discussing these conundrums. But then, thank heavens they did not include these. Where would my blog be if they did?

On a more serious note, is it correct to say

“If I were you, I’d do this differently.”

or is the following correct?

“If I was you, I’d do this differently.”

Going by usage you can make out that the first one is more used, but why is that? English language may be insane sometimes, but then there is a method to the madness, and that I shall decode for you.

First let’s refresh our knowledge of Subjunctives here. The Subjunctive is a verb mood used in subordinate clauses to express various states of non-reality, such as wish, emotion, possibility, necessity, judgment, opinion, or action that has not yet occurred. The structure of Subjunctives is that for all verbs except in the past tense of “be”, the subjunctive is the same as the bare infinitive and it does not change according to person (I, you, he, etc). The table below explains the structure of the “be” verb:

be (past) be (present)
I were I be
You were You be
He/she/it were He/she/it be
We were We be
They were They be

We use subjunctives to talk about events that are unlikely to happen, often with conditionals.

If he were upset with the results, he wouldn’t be partying tonight.
If they were to come to the memorial, they’d be here by now.
If I were a princess, I’d travel in a horse carriage.
If I were the President, I’d abolish death taxes.

The form “If I were you” is used often to give advice:

If I were you, I’d stop being friends with her.
If I were you, I’d work harder at this project.

But the “were” subjunctive does not always follow the “if” clause. When you are stating a fact that may have been true, or is not impossible, you use the indicative “was” with the “if” clause.

If I was home when you came, I was asleep.

The sentence is correct because you are stating a situation could have been possible. Your friend might have come home when you were sleeping, and therefore, there is a likelihood, and hence, the indicative instead of the subjunctive.

It is sufficient to remember that a subjunctive is used when a situation is something you want / hope / imagine will happen or happened, but the indicative is used when a situation may have been possible. If you want to delve deeper, know that the “If I were you” structure does not follow the simple past tense of the verb “to be” (that would be I was or he was). It uses the past subjunctive of the verb “to be”.

But what the hell, I told you English can be insane sometimes? In spite of all this method, some madness is difficult to rein in. That is why in informal or colloquial speech, you can throw the rulebook away and use “was” with the “if” clause even if you mean an event that is unlikely.

If I were the Queen, I’d wear lovely tiaras. – Formal.
If I was the Queen, I’d wear lovely tiaras – Informal.

If I were the Queen…yeah, if wishes were horses!