I had a discussion with the family the other day about the relative merits of the phrases “if I were…” and “if I was…”.

The former has perhaps more famous examples:

  • “If I were a rich man” – Fiddler On The Roof
  • “If I were a boy” – Beyoncé

The conversation arose because I wrote something like this in a document during the week: “If the system were to be unavailable for any reason then …”

Some web research quickly followed.

This construct is also used when giving advice: “If I were you…”

Technically the “if I were” form is known as the subjunctive.  The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines this as follows:

“of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire)”

A good example of the desire usage (again from the Mirriam-Webster website is “I wish it were Friday”. However this is an example where the “I wish it was Friday” would be much more common, certainly here in Ireland.

Some sites claim that there is very little difference between the two forms. Other claim that the subjunctive form should be be used where dealing with something which is hypothetical, or which is known to be untrue.

So since I was dealing with a hypothetical in my document, I guess my use of “were” was the right call.