If I Was vs. If I Were: What's the Difference?

If I were an astronaut
"If I were an astronaut...". JGI/Jamie Grill / 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 gave 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.

Test Your Knowledge: If + Was vs. If + 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, and consider whether the sentence describes a past action or an imaginary situation.

1. If she _____ here today, she would be able to make the necessary corrections.

2. Peter always made lunch if his girlfriend _____ at his home.

3. I would be more careful with that vase if I _____ you.

4. She was happy that I _____ able to come over on Wednesday.

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 he ______ really sick, he would have a fever.

8. If he _____ in town on business, we went out for lunch.

9. If you ____ in my position, what would you do?

10. She made pancakes if her son _____ awake before 10 o'clock.

If I Was vs. If I Were: What's the Difference?

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Good start! To improve your understanding of conditional forms, make sure to review each of the four conditional forms in detail. 

If I Was vs. If I Were: What's the Difference?

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Nice job! Want to continue brushing up on the difference between "If I was" and "If I were"? Review each of the conditional forms in detail.

If I Was vs. If I Were: What's the Difference?

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