'Are' vs 'Were': When to Use Them

By Carly Forsaith, updated on February 21, 2023

Knowing when to use 'are' vs 'were' can trip many people up. The verb 'is' has so many forms that it can be hard to keep up. So when should you use each one? That's what you'll learn in this article.

In short, 'are' is the present indefinite tense of the verb 'to be,' to use with the second person singular and all the plural pronouns. 'Were' should be used for the same pronouns, but only in the past indefinite tense.

'Were' can also be used with the subjunctive mood.

Both forms can take on the role of auxiliary verbs.

What Is the Difference Between 'Are' vs 'Were'?

'Are' and 'were' are both forms of the 'to be.' It's a notoriously tricky verb, not only because it's irregular but because it has more irregular forms than many other verbs. That's why choosing the correct verb form based on the context can be tricky business.

In the following sections, we'll look at these two variations of the verb, and I'll break down the different scenarios in which you can use each one so that by the end of this article, you will feel confident about using them correctly.

When to Use 'Are'

We'll start with 'are.' You can use this form of the verb in two different ways: as the present indefinite tense of the verb 'to be' or as an auxiliary verb.

Present Indefinite

'Are' is the present indefinite form of the verb 'to be' for some pronouns. Let's review the conjugation of the verb 'to be' in this tense. It goes like this:

  • I am
  • You are
  • He/she/it is
  • We are
  • You are
  • They are

As you can see, 'are' is used with four pronouns: the second person singular pronoun 'you,' and all the plural pronouns: 'we,' 'you,' and 'they.'

The present indefinite tense is used to talk about something that is true today.

For example:

You are very tall.

We are at home.

They are kind.

'Are' as an Auxiliary Verb

The verb 'to be' can also be an auxiliary verb, meaning that instead of being the main verb of the sentence, it can support other verbs. 'Are' as an auxiliary verb applies to the same pronouns I outlined above: 'you,' 'we,' 'they,' and 'you.'

For example:

We are preparing a feast for tonight.

They are getting ready to leave.

You are doing a great job.

In the example above, 'running' is the main verb, and the sentence is actually in the present continuous tense. So although 'are' is the present indefinite form of the verb 'to be,' when used as an auxiliary verb, it helps to form the present continuous.

When to Use 'Were'

Now let's look at 'were.' You can use this form of the verb in three different ways: as the past indefinite tense of the verb 'to be,' as an auxiliary verb, or in the subjunctive mood.

Past Indefinite

'Were' is the past indefinite form of the verb 'to be' for some pronouns. Let's review the conjugation of the verb 'to be' in this tense. It goes like this:

  • I was
  • You were
  • She/he/it was
  • We were
  • You were
  • They were

'Were' is therefore used with four pronouns: 'we,' 'you,' and 'they.' Exactly the same as 'are,' therefore. That's correct! 'Were' is basically the past tense equivalent of 'are,' so the rules for using one mirror the rules for using the other.

The past indefinite tense is used to talk about something that was true before but has now ended.

For example:

You were happy in that house.

We were best friends in high school.

You were a fantastic team to work with.

'Were' as an Auxiliary Verb

Just like 'are,' 'were' can be an auxiliary verb too. It supports other verbs to form the past continuous in sentences using the pronouns singular 'you,' and plural 'we,' 'they,' and 'you.'

For example:

You were sitting quietly in the library the first time I saw you.

We were planning a wedding at that time.

They were trying to get better grades.

Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood helps express hypothetical situations, like wishes and suggestions.

When writing a sentence in the subjunctive mood, the verb 'to be' becomes 'were' with all the pronouns.

Here are some examples:

If I were rich, I'd buy a mansion.

What if you were to speak to your boss about it?

I wish they were here with us.

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Are' vs 'Were'

Now you're clear on all the situations in which you can use 'are' and 'were,' I'm assuming you'd also like to know how to pronounce the two words. After all, you might not only write them, but you might also need to say them.

The verb 'are' rhymes with 'bar,' 'cigar,' and 'star.' If it were spelled the way it sounds, it probably would look something like this:

[ ahr ]

The verb 'were' rhymes with 'fur,' 'blur,' and 'chauffeur.' It sounds like this:

[ wur ]

As for the IPA spellings, the International Phonetics Alphabet, here they are:


/ wɜr /

Final Thoughts on 'Are' vs 'Were'

So there you have it: the difference between 'are' vs 'were' and when to use each. I hope you found this article and now feel more confident using both of these words. Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • 'Are' and 'were' apply to the pronouns singular 'you' and plural 'we,' 'you,' and 'they.'
  • Use 'are' when writing in the present indefinite tense
  • Use 'were' when writing in the past indefinite tense
  • 'Were' is also used in the subjunctive mood
  • 'Are' and 'were' can also be auxiliary verbs to create the present and past continuous tenses

If you found this blog helpful, check out our other Confusing Words articles to continue perfecting your English grammar knowledge.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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