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From my research online the correct way is to say "If I were you" and not "If I was you" because this is the "subjunctive mood".

However they don't say the underlying reason for it. They just say use "If I were you" when it is subjunctive.

What if I wanted to say "If he was you", should I use "if he were you" instead? Since most post talk about "If I.." I have no way to know what would be the correct way for "If he...", "If she..", etc.

I read that the subjunctive is a mood and not a Tense. With Tenses you know the conjugation. How does it work with the moods?

I found this site which has a long list of conjugations, and it has "I were" for the Past subjunctive.

So, when I am saying "If I were you":

  • Am I using the "Past Subjunctive"?
  • And therefore I should also say "If he were you"?
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    Not part of the answer, but you should know that capitalizing pronouns other than "I" in the middle of a sentence means you are talking about God. "If he were you" compared to "If He were you" is a big difference. :) – leoger May 20 '14 at 20:48
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    Were is unique in Modern English, so I wouldn't bother giving it names like "subjunctive" that imply it's a predictable part of a larger system. – snailboat May 21 '14 at 9:28
  • @leoger yes thank you for the remind, I have a bit of an obsession putting things in upper case. In this case was a typo though, since I was writing "I" all over. – Dzyann May 21 '14 at 12:10
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    A bit related, in Early Modern English, thou was the singular and you was the plural (english.stackexchange.com/questions/9780/…). So, you have to use the plural version of "was" in order to match "you". – Phonics The Hedgehog Nov 17 '14 at 2:39
  • @PhonicsTheHedgehog that is very interesting, it would certainly explain the odd "you were". – Dzyann Nov 17 '14 at 17:07
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Yes, you are using the past subjunctive and yes, you should say "If he were you".

With moods, just like tenses, we know the conjugation. That's because every conjugation happens for some combination of tense and mood. There is a never a verb which has a tense but no mood or a mood but no tense. If we don't name a mood, such as when we talk about the "past tense" it's because the most common mood, the indicative, is assumed. As in, you are indicating something, in other words saying that something exists or is true. That's got to be 95% of the things we say every day.

Don't worry too much about moods as a category -- other than conditional, they are simple and consistent in English. Studying the conditional as its own unique category should be enough because English has a great deal of nuance in conditionals. (e.g. "If you had been", "If you were to be", "If you were to have been", ...)

(EDIT: Based on some of the other answers, I have decided to clarify with further examples and discussion.)

This is not to say that "If I was" is never correct! Rather, it has a different meaning. This page explains it well. Here are two examples that I hope make it clear:

"If I were sick, I would not have come to the party." (subj.)

This is subjunctive because it tells me that the speaker does not believe he was sick and is imagining some different reality and how things would be different.

"If I was sick, I didn't know it at the time." (ind.)

This is indicative because it tells me that the speaker doesn't know whether he was sick. He is speaking (with uncertainty) about this reality in which we live, not an imagined reality where something is different.

VERY IMPORTANT: You will find a lot of incorrect usage of "was"/"were" on the internet, on TV, and in conversation with native English speakers because this is one of the most commonly ignored rules in modern English. I didn't say "most common mistakes" because it is easy to understand the meaning even if the wrong word is used. For example:

"If I was ..., I would have ..." (common, but not technically correct)

In this sentence, we know that the speaker is speaking in subjunctive mood even though he used "was", because the "would have" is unmistakably subjunctive. You should avoid this usage on a resume or in an academic paper, and probably even in important business meetings. In other situations it is generally consider informal, rather than a mistake.

In 200 years, it is very likely that "if I were" is going to be gone from the language and will be only found in historical usage. There was a time when people in England went to jail for referring to the King as "thou" instead of "you". Then for probably a hundred years, some people ignored the difference and some others people said "those fools have terrible grammar and no respect." I'm sorry for all the confusion, but this is part of any living, changing language.

  • Thanks a lot! The "If I was sick, I didn't know it at the time" example really helped a lot. I know for the most part people won't talk down on me if I use these things wrong, but not being native speaker these rules help. My native language is Spanish and at school they teach you all the modes with their time tenses. Some of them are barely used, but being able to picture them all together helps me to understand. When they teach you English it seems they tend to simplify and it can be counter productive. – Dzyann May 22 '14 at 13:56
  • Could you tell me whether "If I was" is considered as subjunctive in African American Vernacular English? – user31782 Jul 30 '15 at 16:48
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    Leogerl, your link to cliff notes is no longer working... :/ – An old man in the sea. Jul 30 '15 at 16:50
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    How is it "incorrect usage" if a lot of native speakers "ignore the rule"? It is usage that determines so-called rules. – Alan Carmack Sep 29 '16 at 23:00
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    Alan, I agree with you entirely. I hope it's clear from my concluding paragraphs that I don't do the whole prescriptivism thing. However, this one is in a gray area. "Incorrect" was probably not the best word to convey what I meant. Maybe I should have said it's not "formally correct". However, the rule is still very much followed in written English. In that sense, it's alive and well and worth teaching clearly to English language learners. – leoger Oct 1 '16 at 0:49
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In Latin one had a systematic logic to arrange the conjugation of a verb. See here the conjugation of "esse" (to be).

This system got totally lost in English. Compare this English conjugation table of "to be" here.

For me such a conjugation table is a total chaos, to say the least. And I don't want to hint at how many things are arranged in the wrong way.

And there are some misconceptions about mood. Often you read "mood" is no tense. Have a look at the Latin table then you clearly see that there is a present tense in indicative and subjunctive. The same is true for past tense.

In English the subjunctive forms have got lost. There is only a small remainder: be* and were* (asterisk means subjunctive form). In all other cases the subjunctive forms are identical to the indicative forms. This is the cause that in English conjugation tables the subjunctive column is simply omitted. But this confuses the picture.

If you study where the "pseudo subjunctive forms" in English are used you'll find that it is quite a lot, especially after "if". "Pseudo subjunctive" means forms that are identical to the indicative and only the special sentence type lets you know that the form is a subjunctive.

As past subjunctive is in 99 per cent identical with past indicative (with the exception of were*) even were* is in some cases replaced by "was*" in spoken language. You can say

  • I wish father were* here. (Written language, genuine subjunctive)

But "I wish father was* here" is possible, too. (spoken language, pseudo subjunctive).

In German the system is still differentiated:

er ist, er sei* - er war, er wäre*

he is, he be* - he was, he were*/he was*

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You need to realize that in both cases,as spoken in everyday descriptive grammar, the two uses are perfectly understandable and fine to use. A nice way I have always thought about when teaching students to get into the habit of using "were" is how in U.K English, we have a habit of leaving out the "if" clause and inverting the verb so it reads: "Were I you". Notice how if we do the same with "was" this can sound awkward. I know this is not the technical reason, but it has always helped people I've taken for lessons to remember which participle to use.

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No. Don't use if he was you. Because it's not possible for him to be you. Use were instead. The if...were structure is generally used when something is not possible by any means.

On the other hand, if...was structure is fine if the thing is imaginably possible.

If I was ill, I would not have come to this party for sure. - You are a living being and certainly can become ill. It's just imaginary and conditional clause.

Many news results shows If I was a terrorist..., If I was a betting man..., If I was a thug... and instances the like. OTOH, If I were the president..., If I were Jewish..., If I were Jone Jones... are found from authentic sites.

As the site states, it could be past subjunctive but then using was/were with pronouns depends on the context.

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    This is just plain wrong and ungrammatical. "If I was ill, I would not have come [...]" is a statement about something we know is hypothetical or contrary to fact. That means you should use the subjunctive mood. "If I was ill, I didn't have any symptoms", however, is not subjunctive because we are talking about the truth, but about which we are not sure. – leoger May 21 '14 at 19:27
  • @leoger In this case, 'if' is acting as a time clause to discuss what happened in a certain situation. – Maulik V May 22 '14 at 5:35
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    Your answer is just flat wrong. The condition being imaginable does not affect the use of the subjunctive mood. As I mentioned in my answer, many english speakers do not follow this rule in colloquial speech -- they are quite happy to use the construction "If I was" despite it very clearly being the wrong grammar. This is the explanation for your search results. – aestrivex May 23 '14 at 20:20
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    @aestrivex But it's not "very clearly [...] the wrong grammar". As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language states on page 86, the was form has been in competition with were for 300-400 years, and most usage manuals regard it as acceptable. However, there are places where were must be used: inverted conditionals ("I would certainly join them, were I not working on a project of my own") and the fixed phrase as it were. It is also particularly common in if I were you, which can be regarded as a collocation. – snailboat May 23 '14 at 23:07
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It's true that in this situation the subjunctive mood is being employed, but I would call this situation a use of the subjunctive tense rather than a mood. There is a history in many language families including romance languages for utilizing the preterite subjunctive to refer to conditional states.

In this situation it is unambiguously correct grammar to use the subjunctive "If I were to go to the park I would die". That said a lot of English speakers in colloquial speech will not use the subjunctive tense, instead saying "If I was to go to the park I would die." This is incorrect, but easily understood.

This construction in English is always conjugated with were, regardless of the subject ("If we were taller, we would ..." and so on).

protected by snailboat Sep 8 '15 at 5:52

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