A reader wonders whether to use was or were in the following examples:
I wish I were…or…I wish I was…
If only it was…or… If only it were…
What is the rule?
With these examples, the choice is obvous because the words wish and if only make it clear that the speaker is talking about something that is not so. In such a case the subjunctive is called for:
I wish I were…
If only it were…
Sometimes the choice whether to use the subjunctive or the indicative is not so clear. To a large extent, English speakers don’t pay much attention to the subjunctive.
As long ago as 1926 H.W. Fowler called the subjunctive in English “moribund.” He went further and suggested that it never was possible to draw up a consistent table of uses of the subjunctive in English that would correspond to such tables for Latin.
Although the subjunctive is not a big deal in English, some uses of it are still alive and not difficult to master.
Depending on context, the choice between indicative and subjunctive can be as obvious as the examples with “wish” and “if only.”
If I were/if he were/if she were
These forms are called for when the statement refers to a state outside reality:
If he were Governor he could pardon you. (He’s not the Governor.)
If I were you, I’d fix that leaky roof. (I’m not you.)
If she were an animal, she’d be an armadillo. (She’s not an animal.)
If I was/if he was/if she was
These forms are called for when the statement refers to a state of being that existed, or could have existed in actual time:
If he was ill, no wonder he left the oysters untouched.
If I was unkind to you in those days, please forgive me.
If she was lost in the woods, no one can blame her for being late.
Sometimes the speaker must decide according to intended meaning:
If she were sensible, she’d order a background check on him. (I know her and she’s not sensible.)
If she was sensible, she’d order a background check on him. (I don’t know if she’s sensible or not. She may be.)
In his DCBLOG, David Crystal gives this example overheard in conversation:
A — If Jane was right for the part, I’d cast her.
B — But that’s the point. Is she right?
A — Well if she were, I’d cast her, that’s all I’m saying…
This example shows an intermingling of indicative and subjunctive to achieve nuances of meaning.