CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

The mood of verbs

All the verbs are crying in the corner again, miss!

In school, surely, we were all taught that the rule was: I was, you were, he/she/it was and they were. So why do we sometimes see I were? Well, believe it or not, that rule you were taught is not entirely true. (I can hear you groaning and cursing the English language and its rules from here!)

It all boils down to a certain mood that verbs sometimes adhere to. Yes, verbs can have moods.

The subjunctive mood of verbs is used in expressing a hypothetical or yet-to-be-realised event, usually involving imagined or wished-for situations.

‘I would keep back from the edge of the abyss if I were you,’ the man said.

‘I wish I were a little taller, then I could quite comfortably rest my arm condescendingly upon your head,’ my friend said.

The clue in these examples is the expression of hope or an imagined situation with the words if and wish. In the first instance, the man could not possibly become the person to whom he is speaking (magic being put aside, of course!), therefore, the sentence is hypothetical. In the second sentence, the speaker is wishing for a situation in which they were taller, which they are not. In these events, use the subjunctive mood of the verb, in this case were.

So when do you use was? Use was when the situation is not hypothetical, contradicting reality or unlikely to happen. For example:

If I was late to work, my boss would give me a talking to.

If I was not ready to leave by noon, Sally would go without me.

These situations are not wished-for events or imagining something that could not occur. The boss would punish me for being late to work, it’s a statement of fact, as is the fact that Sally would leave if I wasn’t ready to go on time. This is what is known as the indicative mood of verbs—used when stating a simple fact and the most common.

Quite often, context will help you. In this situation, Grandpa has moved overseas and the likelihood of him showing up out of the blue is very slim. So we use the subjunctive were.

‘If Grandpa were to walk in through that door, I’d give him a great big hug and thank him for my birthday present!’ Lee exclaimed.

However, if Grandpa still lived around the corner and usually visited the house, making his presence fairly likely, we could safely use was.

‘If Grandpa was to walk in through that door, I’d give him a great big hug and thank him for my birthday present!’ Lee exclaimed.

While in spoken English, the subjunctive mood is being slowly but surely forgotten, in more formal methods of writing and in prose, it still lives on and it’s definitely worth trying to learn.

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