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If I were you...

At school or in grammar books you are normally taught the following rule:

  • I / he / she / it - WAS
  • We / you / they - WERE

This is correct when we are talking about the PAST TENSE.

BUT there is another situation in which WERE appears that is not the past tense. It also appears in the SUBJUNCTIVE mood.

First, let's look at the following structure and meaning before explaining why it happens...

If I were you

If I were you ... is used when giving ADVICE about what you would do in the same situation as the other person. You imagine yourself in their position or situation and what you would do or how you would react.

  • If I were you, I would study more.
  • If I were you, I would stop doing that.
  • If I were you, I would go to the doctor.
  • if I were you, I would subscribe to the Woodward English YouTube channel right now. :)
  • If I were you, I wouldn't play with those wires.

Though in informal (and grammatically incorrect) English, you may hear some people say If I was... This usage doesn't sound good, so avoid it.

You can also change the order of the sentence

  • I would study more if I were you.
  • I would be more careful if I were you.
  • I wouldn't do that if I were you.

Notice how the comma is not necessary with this word order.

Why do you use IF I WERE and not IF I WAS?

The reason we use WERE instead of WAS is because the sentence is in the SUBJUNCTIVE mood which is used for hypothetical situations. This is a condition which is contrary to fact or reality (the fact is, I am NOT you).

In the subjunctive mood we use IF + I / HE / SHE / IT + WERE for the verb To Be.

  • If I were not in debt, I would quit my job. (But the contrary is true, I AM in debt, so I cannot quit my job)
  • If he were taller, he'd be accepted into the team.
  • She would be still be correcting my grammar if she were still alive.

In informal English, you will hear some people say If I was... If he was... etc. Again, this usage doesn't sound good though unfortunately it is common, especially on the internet (and social media sites).

Can IF I WAS ever be correct?

Yes, though the sentence is not in the Subjunctive mood but the Indicative instead. Note that it is not common to use the indicative mood with IF. Let's compare:

  • If I was sick, she would give me medicine that tasted terrible. (indicative = states facts or asks questions - in this case, IF can be replaced by WHENEVER)
  • If I were sick, I wouldn't be here. (subjunctive = hypothetical - I am not sick, but I'm imagining that hypothetical situation)

If I was your boyfriend... NOOO JB!

There is a song on the radio that goes... "If I was your boyfriend, I'd never let you go..."

Well, sorry Justin Bieber fans but this is grammatically incorrect.

It should be "If I WERE your boyfriend, I'd never let you go."

Why? Because we are talking about a hypothetical situation of me being your boyfriend. It is not real, it is just a situation I am imagining so we need to use the Subjunctive Mood here.

This song is why English teachers don't like JB - well, one of the reasons. :)

But hey, at least Beyoncé got it right with her song "If I were a boy".

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