If I was or If I were?

Possibilities
If I were an astronaut ... JGI/Jamie Grill / Blend Images / Getty Images

One of the most common mistakes in English is the incorrect usage of the phrase If I was. In fact, you will hear native speakers commonly make this mistake. Here are a few examples of this mistake:

If I was you, I would try to find a new job.
If she was here, she would explain the situation.

In both sentences, was is used instead of the correct form were. However, sometimes If I was or If she was is correct!

Here are two examples:

If I was late for class, the teacher game me extra homework.
If he was asked a question, he replied quickly and honestly.

What's the difference between these two types of sentences? Why is one correct and the other not? The answer is that the first two sentences are used to express imaginary situations. These sentences require the subjective form were for all subjects:

If I were you, I would try to find a new job.
If she were here, she would explain the situation.

The second group of sentences refers to a situation that was always true in the past. In this case, the past simple is used:

If I were is used to express an imaginary situation in the present.

If I were you, I would take a vacation.
I would give the test again if I were the teacher. 

If I was is used to express something that was true when or if something else happened:

If I was late for class, I got into trouble.
I had to do extra homework, If I was absent.

Imaginary, Unreal or Second Conditional

The second conditional is also known as the imaginary or unreal conditional. Use the imaginary conditional to speak about situations which are contrary to fact. Use the following structures:

If + Subject + Simple Past (Subjunctive) + Objects, Subject + Would + Verb + Objects

If I had more time, I would take up a new hobby.
If Jane moved to New York, she would get an apartment in Brooklyn.

The simple past in the imaginary conditional is actually the subjunctive voice. The only grammatical difference between the two is in the use of the verb be. In this case, all subjects take were:

If she were more honest, she would admit fault.
If they were in town, we would go out for dinner.

Remember that it is also possible to end the sentence with an 'if' clause. In this case, do not use a comma to separate the two clauses:

Subject + Would + Verb + Objects If + Subject + Simple Past + Objects

The school would hire more teachers if the district voted for a tax increase.
The economy would improve if the people paid less for health insurance.

Reality Check

Native speakers use this incorrect form so frequently that it is becoming standard usage. It is interesting to note that Cambridge University accepts If I / she / he was for the imaginary conditional on its English learning test series whereas ETS (English Testing Service) does not. This is a case of descriptive grammar (how the language is used) winning out over prescriptive grammar (how the language should be used). It certainly causes many headaches for English learners!

If = When

The use of If I / she / he was is correct when used to express something that was always true in a certain situation in the past. In this case, the meaning of if is similar to when.

If he comes to town, we go out for lunch. = When he comes to town, we go out for lunch.
If I was available, we spent some time chatting. = When I was available, we spent some time chatting.

Here is the structure for this form:

If + Subject + Simple Past + Objects, Subject + Simple Past + Objects

If I was in a hurry for school, I often forgot my lunch.
She visited Tom if she was in New York.

Subject + Simple Past + Objects If + Subject + Simple Past + Objects

The teacher sent us an email if we missed class.
THe company notified customers if there was a problem.

If + Was / Were Quiz

Test your understanding by choosing between was and were to fill in the gaps.

Make sure to note the conjugation of the independent clause for clues:

  1. If she _____ here today, she would be able to make the necessary corrections.
  2. Peter made lunch if his girlfriend _____ at his home.
  3. I would be more careful with that vase if I _____ you.
  4. She was happy if I _____ able to come over for a visit at that time.
  5. My friend would be overjoyed if you _____ to visit him soon.
  6. I _____ happy if my daughter called me twice a week once she left for college.
  7. If the boy _____ sick he would have a fever.
  8. If he _____ in town on business, we went out for lunch.
  9. If the teacher _____ upset he wouldn't let you take a make up test.
  10. She made pancakes if her son _____ up before 10 o'clock.

Answers

  1. were: ... she would be able ... = imaginary situation
  2. was: Peter made lunch ... = past action
  3. were: I would be more careful ... = imaginary situation
  4. was: She was happy ... = past situation 
  5. were: My friend would be overjoyed ... = imaginary situation
  6. was: ... if my daughter called me ... = past situation
  7. were: ... he would have a fever ... = imaginary situation
  8. was: ... we went out for lunch. = past action
  9. were: ... he wouldn't let you ... = imaginary situation
  10. was: ... if her son was up ... = imaginary situation

To improve your understanding of conditional forms make sure to review each of the four conditional forms in detail. To practice conditional form structure, this real and unreal conditional form worksheet provides a quick review and practice exercises, the past conditional worksheet focuses on using the form in the past.

Teachers can use this guide on how to teach conditionals, as well as this conditional forms lesson plan to introduce and practice the first and second conditional forms in class.