The Writing Tip That Ruined Me: “If I was”

fear is the mind killer catFrankie says ‘Relax.’ And Frank Herbert wrote ‘Fear is the mind killer.’ Both of them had a point. Fear—or more in this case, self-doubt—can definitely be fatally counter-productive. So what do you do when you discover a grammar rule that strikes fear into your writer’s heart with its cruelly ambiguous and arbitrary nature? You face your fear…Joe Rogan style! Let’s do this.

Today’s writing tip that ruined me involves “if I was.” As in, “If I was to write a sentence using the subjunctive mood, I would go insane.” That’s because sometimes it’s proper to use “was” and sometimes it’s proper to use “were,” even when the subject is singular.

Let’s analyze the differences between the usages:
You use “was” in an “if” clause if the conditional event is something that could be true:
“Keri walked through the crowd as if she was in a hurry.”
In this sentence, Keri could very well be in a hurry. It’s not meant to be a certainty, but it’s certainly possible.

Compare that to this sentence:
“Keri walked through the crowd as if she were a rhino charging to a campfire.”
This “if” statement, although more colorful, could never be actually true.

Look at this post from Grammar Girl. She can explain the inanity far better than I can:

Here are other correct usages from that post:
“If Bill was to come over, we’d talk football.” With this usage, the speaker is indicating that it’s possible that Bill will come over. So bone up on your fantasy-league stats.

“If Bill were to come over, we’d talk football.” With this usage, it’s implied that Bill is most definitely not coming over. He may be dead or in a coma.

or how about this:
“I wish I were more perceptive.” In this usage, the person is saying they cannot be more perceptive. That the state of being more perceptive is an impossibility for them.

So there you go; hopefully that makes things as clear as mud. Check out this post for more on verb moods: The indicative, subjunctive, imperative, or conditional. Or if you’re feeling really brave, check out these posts of other writing tips that ruined me. Here. And here.

4 thoughts on “The Writing Tip That Ruined Me: “If I was”

    • Thanks for the follow! I’m hardly an expert, but sometimes it’s fun to try to figure out why the English language came up with such wonky rules. Look forward to reading your posts!

      • I think this is what trips me up, when learning any language. I have few issues retaining vocabulary and pronouncing the words, but grammar is something I’ll always have to go back and check. Correct, re-check, correct, and redact. Sometimes.

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