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Why do we use were instead of was in the if clause of second conditional sentencesRecently, I was asked by one of my students why were is used instead of was with the pronouns I, he, she and it in the if clause of type 2 conditional (second / unreal conditional) sentences, as she found that somewhat confusing.
I thought this was the perfect opportunity to write another blog post, especially as it's been a while since I last wrote an article about a particular grammar topic.


First, let's look at the structure of a type 2 conditional sentence and what it is used for.

The second conditional describes imaginary or hypothetical situations, dreams and wishes. Those situations might become real one day, but most likely they will never happen.

So for example:

IF + conditionResult
If + past simplewould + infinitive
If I had a million Euros,I would donate a lot of money to charities.


The clauses are interchangeable:

ResultIF + condition
Would + infinitiveIf + past simple
I would donate a lot of money to charities,if I had a million Euros.


But what happens if the verb "to be" is used in the if clause? Why can't we just use "was" for the pronouns "I" and "he, she, it" as it would be the proper past simple form?
This is because we are talking about an unreal situation. With the phrase "If I were / if she were... etc." you are changing the "mood" of the verb from indicative to subjunctive (see quick grammar tip below).
Therefore, whenever you use the second conditional to talk (or write) about a hypothetical situation, use were instead of was in the if clause.


If Sandra were nicer to her neighbours, she would be invited to their parties.

If I were an author, I would write a book.

If the weather were warmer, we would eat dinner outside.


Quick grammar tip:

Verbs in the English language have three main moods:

  • Indicative: this mood is used to describe facts and real situations, statements and questions. Example: "Clara is a musician." / "Does she go to the gym tomorrow?"
  • Imperative: this mood is used in requests and commands. Example: "Open the window!"
  • Subjunctive: this mood is used for hypothetical statements, for wishes and situations which aren't true (or most likely never will be). Example: "I wish I were a bird." (But I'm not.) / "If he were rich, he would donate a lot of money to the local animal shelter." (But he isn't rich and therefore can't donate a lot of money to the local animal shelter.)



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Sources and further reading:

Martin Parrott: Grammar for English Language Teachers | Michael Swan: Practical English Usage

Grammar Girl (accessed on: 13.4.2020) | Grammarly (accessed on: 13.4.2020) | English Club (accessed on 13.4.2020) | CliffsNotes (accessed on 13.4.2020) | English Grammar for Dummies (accessed on 13.4.2020)






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