Was vs. Were: How to Use Were vs. Was Correctly

Last Updated on December 12, 2023

Even native English speakers and people who’ve been learning this language for a very long time sometimes make very easy mistakes when they speak or write. It often occurs not because they don’t know which word is correct to use, but because they aren’t concentrated enough. Still, it’s important to always be careful, especially when conducting a formal piece of writing, and not make these mistakes. Take was vs. were, for instance. You’d be surprised at how many people actually confuse them.

Was vs. Were

Key Takeaways

  • “Was” and “were” are key to mastering past tense subject-verb agreement.
  • Both was and were are the past tense of the verbto be“.
  • WAS, however, can be used only with the first and third person singular, i.e. I, he, she, it, while WERE can be used with the rest of the pronouns, i.e. you, we, they.

Was vs. WerePin

Was vs. Were: Grammar Rules

When using “was” and “were,” it’s important to match the verb to your subject’s number and perspective, as well as whether you’re stating a fact or a hypothetical.

Usage of Was

“Was” is the singular past tense form of the verb “to be” and is used with the first and third person singular subjects. For instance:

  • I was at the store yesterday.
  • He/she/it was happy to see you.

Usage of Were

“Were,” on the other hand, is used with second person singular and all plural subjects, as well as in hypothetical or conditional statements. Examples include:

  • You were always welcome at their house.
  • They were the champions of the league.

Was vs. Were: Past Tense

Simple Past Tense

In simple past tense, “was” is used for first-person singular (I) and third-person singular (he, she, it) subjects, while “were” is used with you (second-person singular) and all plural subjects (we, they). Here’s a quick guide:

  • I was
  • You were
  • He/She/It was
  • We were
  • They were

Rules are straightforward: Use “was” with singular subjects (except “you”) and “were” with plural subjects and with “you.”

Past Continuous Tense

The past continuous tense indicates that an action was ongoing at a specific moment in the past. To form this tense, you’ll need “was” or “were” along with the “-ing” form of the verb. Here’s how to construct it:

  • I was reading
  • You were writing
  • He/She/It was playing
  • We were learning
  • They were running

Remember, you use “was” for singular subjects (I, he, she, it) and “were” for plural subjects (you, we, they), mirroring the rules of the simple past tense.

Was vs. Were: Subjunctive Mood

Unfortunately, this isn’t all there is when it comes to was and were. In fact, most of the confusion starts with the phrases such as “if I was” and “if I were“. Many people use them interchangeably every single day, even though it isn’t grammatically correct.

The rule is as follows: if you have subjunctive mood, you need to use were, despite the fact that you might be talking about only one person. Subjunctive mood means that you’re making a hypothesis and saying something that you wish for. For instance, “I wish I were a better cook”, or “I wish the weather were warmer this summer”. Both of these sentences don’t describe reality.

You might have heard someone say something like, If I were you, I wouldn’t do that” to you. This is one more example of when to use were, even though it might seem that was fits better. The person speaking can’t actually ”be you”, so the phrase is used hypothetically.

In contrast, was is used for statements that describe reality. For instance, “I wanted to become a cook when I was younger”, or “The weather was warmer last summer than it is now”. Both sentences describe a fact, and this is why was is used.

Was vs. Were Examples

Singular Examples:

  • She was delighted to find out she had passed the exam with flying colors.
  • The weather was perfect for a day at the beach, with clear skies and a gentle breeze.
  • He was the only person in the room who knew the answer to the riddle.
  • The building was constructed in the early 20th century and still stands today.
  • There was a sense of excitement in the air as the concert began.
  • The cake was delicious, and everyone asked for a second slice.
  • It was a time of great innovation and technological advancement.
  • The phone was ringing, but nobody seemed to hear it.
  • The team was playing at their best, and the crowd cheered them on.
  • Dinner was ready, and the family gathered around the table to eat.

Plural Examples:

  • The cookies were so tasty that they disappeared within minutes.
  • They were walking through the park when it suddenly started to rain.
  • The instructions were unclear, which led to confusion during the assembly process.
  • We were just talking about you before you walked in!
  • The walls were painted a bright shade of blue, which gave the room a cheerful feel.
  • There were several options on the menu that sounded appetizing.
  • The children were playing hide-and-seek in the backyard until dusk.
  • All the seats were taken, so we had to stand at the back of the theater.
  • Questions were raised about the effectiveness of the new policy.
  • The streets were deserted after the shops closed for the night.

Was vs. Were: Practice and Exercises

Worksheet: Understanding the Differences Between “Was” and “Were”

Instructions: Choose whether “Was” or “Were” correctly completes each sentence. Then, check your answers below and read the explanations to understand why each choice is correct.

  1. She _______ excited about the surprise party. a) Was b) Were
  2. _______ you at the concert last night? a) Was b) Were
  3. The children _______ playing in the park when it started to rain. a) Was b) Were
  4. There _______ a lot of people at the event. a) Was b) Were
  5. The weather _______ perfect for a day at the beach. a) Was b) Were
  6. _______ it difficult to complete the project on time? a) Was b) Were
  7. The cookies _______ still warm from the oven. a) Was b) Were
  8. _______ the keys on the table when you left? a) Was b) Were
  9. My favorite TV show _______ on last night. a) Was b) Were
  10. _______ there any messages for me while I was out? a) Was b) Were

Answers and Explanations:

  1. a) Was – “Was” is used because the subject “She” is singular.
  2. b) Were – “Were” is used because the subject “you” can be either singular or plural, but in questions, “Were” is used.
  3. b) Were – “Were” is used because the subject “The children” is plural.
  4. b) Were – “Were” is used because “a lot of people” is considered a plural noun phrase.
  5. a) Was – “Was” is used because the subject “The weather” is singular.
  6. a) Was – “Was” is used because “it” is a singular pronoun referring to the singular noun “project.”
  7. b) Were – “Were” is used because “The cookies” is a plural noun phrase.
  8. b) Were – “Were” is used because “the keys” is a plural noun phrase.
  9. a) Was – “Was” is used because “My favorite TV show” is a singular noun phrase.
  10. b) Were – “Were” is used because “any messages” is a plural noun phrase.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I use ‘was’ and when should I use ‘were’ in a sentence?

You should use ‘was’ when referring to the first and third-person singular past tense. Use ‘were’ for the second-person singular past and the plural past form. An easy way to remember is to use ‘was’ with ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’, and ‘were’ with ‘you’, ‘we’, or ‘they’.

Can you give examples of ‘you was’ and ‘you were’ to understand their proper usage?

Although “you was” is grammatically incorrect, “you were” is the correct form to use for both singular and plural second-person. For example: “You were at the store yesterday.”

How do I choose between ‘there was’ and ‘there were’ based on the context?

Use ‘there was’ when referring to a singular noun or an uncountable noun, and use ‘there were’ when referring to plural nouns. For example: “There was a cat on the roof” versus “There were cats on the roof.”

What’s the correct form, ‘he was’ or ‘he were’, and when is it appropriate to use each?

Use ‘he was’ for statements of fact in the past tense. ‘He were’ is rarely correct, except in sentences that use the subjunctive mood to express a wish or hypothetical situations, such as “If he were taller, he could play basketball.”

In conditional sentences, how do I decide whether to use ‘if it was’ or ‘if it were’?

In conditional sentences, use ‘if it was’ when talking about something that was true in the past. Use ‘if it were’ when you’re discussing hypothetical or unlikely situations. For example: “If it was rainy, we stayed inside.” versus “If it were sunny, we would go to the park.”

Could you provide examples of how to correctly use ‘was’ in the past tense?

Sure. For the singular first and third person past tense, ‘was’ is used. Examples include: “I was hungry, so I ate an apple.” or “She was late to her appointment yesterday.”

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