Grammar basics: If I were you…

Taylor Swift and Beyoncé both have hit songs pondering what life might be like if they weren’t women. Swift sings, “’Cause if I was a man / Then I’d be the man,” in her song ​“The Man,”​ while Beyoncé sings, “If I were a boy / Even just for a day,” in her song ​“If I Were a Boy.”​ Is one song better than the other? That’s subjective. But is one song grammatically correct? That’s subjunctive.

Beyoncé wins this round, grammar-wise, for using the subjunctive of the ever-complicated verb “be.” The subjunctive mood is ​one of three moods​ in the English language. There’s the indicative, which is used to express facts or opinions (Beyoncé is the queen), and the imperative for giving orders or instructions (Bow down to Beyoncé). Meanwhile, the ​subjunctive is used to express​ a hypothetical, an impossible scenario, a wish or a contrary-to-fact statement (I’d rule the world if I were Beyoncé). What can make the subjunctive tricky is that you use “were” regardless of the subject: If I were, if you were, if she were, if they were, if we were … etc.

As you might have gleaned, “if” is usually a good indicator that you should use the subjunctive, but not always.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” is the subjunctive, because it’s not possible for me to be you. But in a sentence like, “If he was telling the truth, then you’ll have your money on Monday,” “was” is correct because it is possible he was telling the truth.

"Was" and "were" are both the past tense of "be," with "was" being for the first- and third-person singular, and "were" being for the second-person singular and for plurals: "She was there the same time you were. I was there later." Use "were" instead of "was" in the subjunctive mood: "If he were taller, he could have been a great basketball player."

If I were you, I would share this post with someone who could use a refresher on the subjunctive.

Speaking of refreshers, what else on our list of basic grammar rules would you like to review?

Who or whom? What pronouns do I use for collective nouns? If you need reminders about basic grammar rules, you’re not alone. We could all use a refresher now and then. You can get guidance on some basic grammar rules by clicking a button below. Or, you can ask me something specific.

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