In order to answer that question, I need to introduce you to some verb moods. A “mood,” in grammar speak, is a grammatical category that distinguishes verb tenses. There are a bunch of different kinds of verbal moods, but I’m only going to boggle your brains with two today.
The indicative mood makes an actual or factual statement, and is the one that is used most often in English. We say things like the indicative mood makes an actual or factual statement, or, it is the one that is used most often in English.
Okay, so maybe I’M the only one who says things like that, but you get the point.
The indicative mood tells us that something has happened, that something is happening, or that something will happen. There is no question; it’s a done deal.
The subjunctive mood however, is the one that expresses doubt or relates something that is contrary to fact. It is the form we use when we’re talking about hypothetical situations or when we’re making conditional statements, wishing, or praying.
We use verbs like may and might when we’re speaking about doubtful things – I might go to the party, but then again, I might not – and the word if is a good indicator of the subjunctive – If he doesn’t get stuck at any red lights on the way to the airport, he may just make his flight.
The verb to be, and all its varying forms, very often trips people up and is particularly tricky when we’re using the subjunctive. Indicative is easy – she is a nurse; I was at the scene of the crime, but I was only a witness; he said he will be here at five. All those verbs indicate something that is not in question – she graduated with a BSN, so she IS a nurse. Whether or not I was actually involved in the crime may be in question, but there’s no doubt that I WAS there. He’s a man of his word, so if he says he’ll be here at five, he’ll be here at five.
Put an if in front of those sentences, though, and you’ve got a whole other ballgame. If she were a nurse, she would have been able to help the man who had a heart attack in the grocery store. If I were at the scene of the crime, I may have been able to I.D. a perpetrator. If he were here when he said he’d be, I wouldn’t have had to take a cab home. The indicative forms of the verbs wouldn’t be correct here because she WASN’T a nurse, and was therefore unable to help the man. I WASN’T at the scene, so I was no help to the police. He stood me up, so I had to find my own ride back.
The subjunctive is also used when we’re expressing things that aren’t really happening. She walked as though her ass were on fire. Her ass isn’t on fire, but she was walking so fast, you’d think it were. We use the subjunctive mood there. If Susan had known she’d be called into work on Saturday, she wouldn’t have drunk so much on Friday night. She didn’t know, so she had no concerns about downing that whole bottle of Cuervo Gold all by herself.
The subjunctive is used to express wishes, as well; I wish it were snowing harder so they’d cancel school or she wished she were somewhere else as soon as she saw that Grizwold had been invited to the party, too. It’s not snowing hard enough to cancel school (or it likely won’t) and, dammit, there’s that annoying ex – who invited him, anyway? – well, there’s no getting out of it now because, obviously, she’s not anywhere else, is she?
Here’s how I remember when to use was and when to use were: you remember that song from Fiddler on the Roof? If I Were a Rich Man. I’m NOT a rich man, and I likely never will be (well, I know for sure that I’ll never be a man, but the rich part isn’t terribly likely, either). Unless I know for sure that something has, is, or will be happening, I use ‘were’ for my verb form.
Good luck – and keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!