(If you do not have a sense of humor, proceed with caution)
Whenever I try to explain the differences between this grammar rule and that one, authors and clients will say something like, ‘Will you please speak in English?’ so I began teaching such things with the technical label for a specific form of grammar, followed by a simple explanation of it.
Was and were, however, often suffer PMS. In other words, they have moods just like people do. So they’re a bit more difficult to convey, especially to young students.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Everyone I work with, whether kids doing homework or writers pounding out their next stories, struggle with was and were. There are to be forms of was and were, but there are also the subjunctive forms of was and were. Subjunctive verbs are the forms I see misused the most by writers.
“Hey, you in the corner! Go back to your chair. This is easy if you just keep a good attitude.” [Looks around for Triple B, the classroom bouncer. Guy in corner runs for his chair and promptly sits and looks innocent]
Now, like I was saying, [Triple B gives the guy in the corner the evil eye], to be verbs—was and were—are the forms we all recognize. He was a little boy. We were going to the theater when John slipped and fell.
Subjunctive is mood. I wish I were blond. I’m in a wishful mood and want to be blond, so the subjunctive were is correct.
Another hint that the verb is subjunctive is the word if often followed by would or could. If I were blonde, I could have everything I wanted in life. The if is imaginative and the could implies that it won’t happen or isn’t possible. If I were tall, I would pluck the moon from the sky. Again if followed by would shows that it’s imagination, a fantasy, and the would shows that plucking the moon out of the sky isn’t possible.
“Hey, Triple B, that guy is sneaking out of my classroom.” [Guy screams and runs through the door without opening it. Triple B calmly lumbers after him. Screams echo down the hall. Triple B arrives with Guy held by an ankle and drops him across a seat in front of me.] “Uh…does someone have smelling salts handy?”
So when is it correct to use was? If it might be true, if you’re assuming or guessing something, then use was. The sale began early. If Jane was late, she probably missed some great deals. I don’t know that Jane was late. I’m only guessing, so was is correct.
Determining the context is how you decide whether to use was or were. Does the sentence use if to show a wishful statement? Does the sentence use could or would to imply something won’t happen or isn’t possible? Or does the sentence show something that might be true?
There are other mood verbs, which is something all writers and students should study and learn inside and out. Not knowing the correct verb form can give your sentence the wrong meaning. As an editor, I encounter this a lot in writers’ works.
For more on various mood verbs, here’s an easy-to-understand page http://www.englishgrammar.org/verb-moods/ that I suggest printing out and taping next to your workspace. And, of course, get a copy of Avoid Writer’s Hell: Publishing Flame Repellants. You’ll laugh and giggle throughout the book and you’ll have fun as you learn.
Like I said, was and were suffer PMS, so both are moody. Learn as much as you can about them. Don’t make your editor moody too. Just ask Triple B. One can only imagine how many nightmare edits drove him to hanging up his editor’s hat to become a bouncer. [winks]