If He Was or If He Were? Which is Correct?

In general, “if he was” and “if he were” are both correct, but in different contexts. “If he was” is used to refer to things that actually happened, while “if he were” is used to refer to things that may happen. Though they may have once been totally interchangeable, they’ve developed their own meanings.

Let’s explore the differences between the two to clear up when and how to use each one, and whether you can swap them out in a sentence.

“If he were” and the Subjunctive Mood

The phrase “if he were” is part of a very small subset of English grammatical tense called the subjunctive mood. This tense is used to talk about situations or things that are hypothetical, or that haven’t or couldn’t happen but are being considered from an academic perspective. For instance:

If he were king of the world, he’d give everyone one million dollars.

If he were a dog, he’d get to laze around all day.

This version of the phrase is often used to put the speaker in the shoes of someone or something else or to explain an option they are considering taking.

“If he was” and the Plausible Past

On the other hand, when referring to something that may have actually happened, you would use “if he was.” There’s no official grammatical term for this context, but a good way to think of it is as the plausible past. For example:

If he was ever late to work, they would write him up.

If he was rude to you, I’m sorry.

This version of the phrase is used when talking about a real situation without giving a specific instance (such as in the first example) or in a case where it’s unclear whether the past action or situation actually occurred (such as in the second or third examples).

Are “if he were” and “if he was” Interchangeable?

There are a few arguments for the interchangeable use of “if he were” and “if he was.” They’re used fairly interchangeably in popular media, especially in music.

Let’s look at an example from earlier to see when they can have a different meaning:

If he was rude to you, I’m sorry.

If he were rude to you, I would be sorry.

In the first version of the sentence, the speaker is accepting the possibility that they may have been rude and actively apologizing. In the second version, they are saying what may happen in a hypothetical situation in which they were rude.

“If he was” is used for taking direct responsibility in an unclear situation, while “if he were” is used to illustrate a situation that has not happened at all. In cases like this, the phrases are most definitely not interchangeable.

Conclusion

The grammatical mood is an obscure part of the English language to try and learn, especially because it isn’t as commonly taught as the common tenses. Understanding how and when to use “if he were” versus “if he was” can make your writing clearer, more concise, and more understandable.

As long as you remember the context of your sentence – is this something that could have really happened, or a hypothetical situation? – then you’ll be sure to use the right phrase, every time.

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