WATCH: When You Need A Little Reminder About “Were” Vs. “Was”
Picture it. You’re texting your buddy, and you type out “I wish I were.” But there’s that pesky autocorrect, trying to change it to “I wish I was.” Is autocorrect ducking with you, or are you about to commit a grammar faux pas?
First, a little grammar lesson …
Were and was are both past tense versions of the verb to be. But were is usually used in relation to second person singular and plural pronouns such as you, your, yours. It is also used with select first and third person plural pronouns such as we, they.
We use was, on the other hand, when we’re using the first person singular pronoun I or using the third person singular such as he or she.
For example, you wouldn’t say “You was going to the store.” You would say “You were going to the store.”
But you would say “I was going to the store,” rather than “I were going to the store.”
Why we say “I wish I were”
So, what happens when you’re talking about “I wish I were …” ?
I is a first person singular pronoun, which is what makes using were seem confusing. Shouldn’t we always use was after I?
“I wish I were” is actually the preference of grammar experts because you’re talking about something that hasn’t actually occurred.
For example, “I wish I were on a beach right now with a pile of books” is something a dedicated bibliomaniac might say, and we’d love to join them!
This is correct because of something linguists call the subjunctive mood. Subjunctive refers to words that describe doubtful or hypothetical situations … like wishes for things that aren’t real!
However, sometimes we still hear “I wish I was” …
But, wait a second! Skee-Lo sang “I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller …” and Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist” is littered with variations of “I wish I was.”
Well, let’s face it: Some of our favorite songs are chock full of grammatical errors. These 90s favorites aren’t exactly wrong. They’re simply non-standard.
While grammarians will tell you to stick to “I wish I were” to follow the rules of the subjunctive, language has evolved, and the non-standard “I wish I was” has become increasingly popular. Our advice?
If you’re looking to write a hit song, it’s fine to use the less formal “I wish I was.” If you’re writing a paper for your English professor, on the other hand, stick with the grammarians, and use “I wish I were.”