December 2008 Vol. 13 Issue 4
Grammar Trap: I was vs. I were

What would you do if I was president?

If I were the leader of the free world, what would you expect me to do?

Are either of these statements grammatically correct? If you’re playing Grammar Trap at home, you win points if you recognize this as a question about the past subjunctive verb mood.

Yes, verbs are moody.

Verbs can be declarative/indicative, to express a fact or opinion (“I need toothpaste to brush my teeth”). They can be imperative, to express a command, issue advice, or make a request (“Finish this on time”). Or verbs can be subjunctive, to express a doubt, wish, recommendation, or something contrary to fact (“It is important that I write this on time”).

Subjunctive mood is extra fun because it can be either present or past tense. In the Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage, Purdue’s Muriel Harris writes:

For past subjunctive, the same form as simple past is used; however, for the verb be, were is used for all persons and numbers.

For the musically inclined, my colleague Laura Hoelscher suggests remembering Tevye’s song from Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man . . .”

So, if I really want to speculate about being in charge, I would ask, “What would you do if I were president?” I’d never speculate by writing, “if I was.”

Of course, if the election were held today, I’m sure I’d win the grammar nut vote.

Kevin Leigh Smith,

Do you have a Grammar Trap idea? Do you want On Target to cover a topic that interests you? E-mail your ideas to Kevin Leigh Smith.