‘Was' vs. 'Were': What's the Difference Between the Two?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on November 23, 2022

'Was' vs. 'were' are two forms of the verb 'be' that you'll often see. But which one should you use? This article will help clarify that.

In short:

  • You'll use 'was' when using the first and third person singular of the past indefinite tense and 'were' when using all the other pronouns.
  • You can also use 'were' with the subjunctive mood.

'Was' Vs. 'Were' With the Past Indefinite

The past indefinite is a verb tense that you use to talk about something that happened in the past. It is also called the "past simple."

When conjugating a verb in any tense, the form of the verb will change depending on the pronoun used. Here are the pronouns used in English:

  • First-person singular - I
  • Second person singular - you
  • Third person singular - he, she, they
  • First-person plural - we
  • Second person plural - you
  • Third person plural - they

The Verb "To Be"

The verb "to be" is an irregular verb, and there are only two ways to conjugate it in the past indefinite tense: 'was' and 'were.'

You'll use 'was' with the first and third person singular. Here are some examples:

I was at the supermarket.

I don't know where he was.

She was a little naive.

I found my phone; it was on the table.

And use 'were' with all the others:

Why were you sad?

We were just about to have dinner.

They were busy all afternoon, blowing up balloons for the party.

When were you a bus driver?

Auxiliary Verb

The verb "to be" is also used as an auxiliary verb (or helping verb), meaning its only function is to assist another verb. In the case of 'was' and 'were,' it helps to show that another verb happened in the past, thereby forming the past continuous.

Take the following sentence as an example:

She was writing a book.

We could use the continuous verb "writing" in the present, past, or future. The only way we know this sentence happened in the past is because the auxiliary verb "to be" is used in the past tense "was."

The same rule applies when "be" is an auxiliary verb as it does when it's the main verb: use 'was' with the first and third person singular and 'were' with the others.

Here are some more examples of 'was' and 'were' being used to form the

We were hoping to arrive by 9 pm.

They said they were running to catch the train.

I felt like I was really making a difference.

What were you lying about?

'Was' Vs. 'Were' With the Subjunctive Mood

There's another circumstance where 'were' can be used, and that's with the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive is used to talk about things that aren't anchored in reality: dreams, wishes, and hypothetical situations.

When using the verb "to be" with the subjunctive mood, always use 'were,' no matter the pronoun.

Let's have a look at some examples:

I wish I were a little bit taller.

If she were more famous, she might have gotten the role.

They said they'd buy a house in France if they were to win the lottery.

Why are you acting as if you were the boss?

Who knows what we could do if we were to use 100% of our brains?

As you might have noticed, you'll often see the word "if" with the subjunctive mood. "Wish" is another common one.

And yes, you might also notice that the subjunctive mood isn't always used in pop culture or even everyday speech. You'll hear people say things like, "If I was you, I wouldn't do that." That's because the subjunctive mood is less popular than it used to be and is often seen as overly formal. However, it is the grammatically correct way to speak.

Concluding Thoughts on 'Was' Vs. 'Were'

To summarize, with the past indefinite tense, 'was' is singular, and 'were' is plural. That goes for both primary and auxiliary verbs. With the subjunctive mood, always use 'were.'

Don't worry if these two verbs seemed confusing to you. There are many such words in the English language, which is why we created our blog section on confusing words. Head over to learn to differentiate even more tricky words.

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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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