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Merriam-Webster says

The Subjunctive Mood with "Be" and "Were"

“The subjunctive is most noticeable with the common but grammatically complicated verb be. In the present subjunctive, be staunchly remains be instead of changing to am, are, or is according to its subject. And the past subjunctive form of be is consistently were, even when was would otherwise be the form.”

Does that mean it's also correct to use "was" instead of "were" in this case? Or maybe I misunderstand Merriam-Webster's explanation? Please help me understand it correctly.

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    Does that mean it's also correct to use "was" instead of "were" in this case? Why would you think that? That is not what M-W is saying. (Also, please tag your question appropriately.) Dec 22, 2022 at 4:44

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That M-W sentence means that in the past subjunctive, "were" is correct, even in places where "was" is correct in non-subjunctive. So it strongly implies that "was" is incorrect as a past subjunctive.

I disagree though, or at least I don't think it represents the full modern story of "was" and "were".

It's true that in academic and formal writing "were" is still preferred for the past subjunctive, but when speaking, in almost every context where we normally use "was", both "were" and "was" are correct.

(a) If my brother were here, he would know what to do.
(b) If my brother was here, he would know what to do.

(a) I wish I were at home in bed.
(b) I wish I was at home in bed.

All of these are natural and correct when speaking today, but as little as 20 years ago -- and definitely 40 years ago -- the (b) versions were considered incorrect or uneducated.

The only context where "was" still sounds distinctly incorrect, or at least uneducated, is in the phrase, "If I were you, ..." for introducing advice. That phrase is fixed, so "*If I was you" sounds wrong.

Indulgent tangent: The first indication I had of this shift was in 2004, when Gwen Stefani covered the 1964 song, "If I were a Rich Man". Of course, she changed the word "man" to "girl", but she also changed "were" to "was": "If I was a rich girl". My first reaction was that she'd purposefully introduced bad grammar, but it didn't actually sound wrong, just new, which was almost certainly her intent.

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  • The fact that people use "was" reflects that the subjunctive is disappearing from English. "Was" in "if I was a rich girl" is not a subjunctive; it is an indicative verb used in a conditional expression.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 22, 2022 at 10:41
  • @StuartF Interesting take. Would you allow the argument that rather than saying subjunctive is disappearing, that the form of the subjunctive is changing to match the indicative simple past? In a clause like, "If I had a million dollars, ...", to me it makes no sense to call "had" simple past indicative because it clearly refers to the present, so it must be subjunctive.
    – gotube
    Dec 22, 2022 at 19:24
  • Thank you all for your assistance and help! Happy holidays ~
    – Maurice
    Dec 26, 2022 at 5:21

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