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When I was in High School, I read a rule, that was tricky, and I still remember. The rule is:

If something has happened but we wish it happened the other way by using "if", we should change the was/were in supposedly reverse order with respect to the subject. For example:

If I were a bird. (still remember it from high school)

So I am not a bird, but wish if I was a bird. Here was should be replaced by were.

Now what I understand this rule should apply when something has not happened or something we wish but can't happen. This type of expression can also be conveyed without using "If". But I haven't see this rule used without if. For example Thought it were you (But it isn't)

So my question is Is this rule an if specific rule rule?

Also as a side note: I would also like to know if such rule exists in case of present tense i.e. jumbling am/is/are?

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1 Answer

This question has been thoroughly discussed at ELU.

Briefly speaking, "were" is not a past tense of "to be". Instead, it is subjunctive mood:

The subjunctive mood is used to express a wish or possible situation that is currently not true.

And subjunctive is preferred (other sources say, it is required) to use were, not was.

For example, you may say:

If I were a bird tomorrow.

Here's one more example for better understanding:

If I were wrong, others would let me know.
If I was wrong, please forgive me.

Here, the former sentence is subjunctive: I say that that the first clause is not true (I don't believe I can be wrong). Literally, I say, "others have not let me know, so it is argument for I can't be wrong".

The latter sentence is past tense wrapped into conditional mood: I assume I might be wrong, and, if so, the second clause apply (I plead forgiveness).

An often used example of subjunctive mood is:

If I were you, I would...


From comments (note "thought", not "though"):

Thought it were you

To me, it does not seem to be subjunctive. Instead, it looks like two linked phrases: {I} Thought {that} it were you. However, there is a bit of ambiguity, as you may also say: Thought it was you.

To my understanding, was versus were can be different due to slight differences between subjects, with a slight change with the word order.

         ┌──↓
Thought it was you

meaning "that object appeared to be you"

         ↓──┐ ↓──┐
Thought it were you

meaning "you were that object I've thought of"

Note that in English, the subject/verb order is strict, but this rule can be violated in colloquial speech.

Update I just thought it may also be an impersonate verb as well:

{I} though {that} (it was (you {doing it}))

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Thank you for your thoughtful answer. But I also want to know is this rule if specific? Is it also applicable in the example I have given (Thought it were you)? –  Mistu4u Jan 26 '13 at 14:42
    
Thought it is. –  Mistu4u Jan 26 '13 at 15:00
    
Another request: Does such rule exist that is used in case of present tenses jumbling am/is/are? –  Mistu4u Jan 26 '13 at 15:01
    
I don't think that "thought it are you" is correct. A good question, though; maybe someone else can elaborate. –  bytebuster Jan 26 '13 at 15:05
1  
I guess "to use where, not was" should be "to use were, not was." –  kiamlaluno Jan 26 '13 at 15:50
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