Despite nearly four decades of spraching ze English, I still have embarrassing weaknesses in grammar and vocabulary. One example is the proper use of “was” and “were”. I’m not referring to singular versus plural, such as “I was a pixie” and “They were pixies”. The problem I have is this:
“I wish you was here.”
“I wish you were here” is obviously right, because the second example sounds like Mater from Cars. But what about:
“I wish I was a woodland sprite.”
“I wish I were a woodland sprite.”
I knew the correct answer but didn’t know why, which left me vulnerable to slip-ups.
The key is the mood of the verb. “Was” and “were” are past tense versions of the verb “to be”. The particular use of this verb determines which version to choose.
The mood we’re looking for is called the subjunctive mood, which conveys states of unreality. When the verb “to be” is talking nonsense or getting all dreamy, we’re in the subjunctive mood and need to use “were” instead of “was”.
“If you were a prancing unicorn, I’d feed you magical oats.”
“I wish I were a leprechaun.”
If the statement is true or might be true, use “was”.
Ah, but “might be true’ — what does that mean?
Maybe you’re not sure who the St. Patrick’s Day Parade leprechaun was, but it might have been your friend Charlie. You would say:
“If Charlie was the leprechaun, I envy him.”
Or perhaps you’re referring to a future that isn’t contrary to fact or presumed impossible. Let’s say that Charlie has been the parade leprechaun every year for the past decade. You would say:
“I knew that if Charlie was the leprechaun again next year, my envy would destroy our friendship.”
Now instead let’s pretend that Charlie has never been the parade leprechaun before and has a profound leprechaun phobia. The likelihood of his assuming the role in next year’s parade is improbable, so you would say:
“I knew that if Charlie were the leprechaun next year, he would probably die of panic.”
One confusion remains, however. The subject “you” seems to bollix things up. Let’s say you are Charlie, and I am addressing you directly. You have been the leprechaun for a decade and will likely be the leprechaun next year, too. Since my statement isn’t contrary to fact or presumed impossible — since it is highly likely that you will be leprechaun next year — I’m supposed to use “was” instead of “were”. But that would make it:
“If you was the leprechaun again next year, my envy would destroy our friendship.”
Which brings me back to sounding like Mater. Is this an exception to the rule, one in which I ought to use “were” because it sounds better, or am I missing something here? I will continue with my research.