Was and were are past-tense forms of the verb ‘to be.’ Use ‘was’ for the first and third-person singular tenses (I, he, she, or it). Use ‘were’ for the second person singular or plural tenses (you, your, yours, we, they).
What is the difference between was vs were?
The words “was” and “were” are past tense forms of the verb “to be,” a word English speakers use more often than they realize. Whenever we use the terms are, is, am, was, were, be being, or been–– we are using the verb ‘be’ (to be).
The verb ‘to be’ contains several forms because it’s an auxiliary verb, which means it assists or modifies another verb. Similar auxiliary verbs include do (did, does, doing) or have (had, has, having), and it’s common to see these verbs paired with ‘be,’ as well.
‘To be’ is also an irregular verb, so it doesn’t function the way other verbs do in the English Language. For instance, regular verbs contain past tense forms with the letter “d” or “-ed” at the end (e.g., answered, forced, hunted, etc.).
- Present tense: am, are, is.
- Simple past tense: was, were.
- Present continuous: am being, are being, is being.
- Present perfect: have been, has been.
- Future: will be.
- Future perfect: will have been.
- Past continuous: was being, were being, was being.
- Past perfect: had been.
What does ‘to be’ mean?
English speakers use the verb ‘to be’ to describe a variety of actions, but the overall meaning is to ‘exist’ or ‘occur’ as something in time and space. Let’s take a look at five general ways to define and write ‘to be’ in a sentence:
To be equal to something, the same, or to symbolize something. For example,
“Life is good.”
“If y is 20, let x be 16.”
To belong to a class or a category of something.
“That building is a local high school.”
“Learning is your job.”
“You are a student.”
To exist in reality, to live, or remain undisturbed.
“I was born.”
“I am alive.”
“Let me be.”
To occur or exist in a specific location.
“The coffee is on the table.”
“He is at the park.”
“They were in the car.”
“The event was on Monday.”
To say (informal).
“They were like, ‘you can’t do that.’”
“He was like, ‘no way!’”
Breathe, dwell, exist, happen, inhabit, live, occur, remain, reside, sit, stand, stay, subsist.
Cease, depart, die, discontinue, expire, halt, pass, perish, stop, succumb.
How to use was vs. were in a sentence?
The simple past tense for was vs. were
The simple past tense is the only past tense form we use for were and was because “was” and “were” are the preterite forms of the verb ‘to be.’ There are two other past-tense verb forms, the present perfect and past perfect tenses, but they incorporate the verb’s past participle “been,” instead. For example,
Present perfect: have been, has been.
Past perfect: had been.
We use the simple past tense to describe past events in a historical manner. Sentences that use the simple past tense contain an adverb or adverb phrase that pertains to time (e.g., yesterday, on Monday, last month, etc.).
For the simple past tense, we use the verbs was and were in the following ways:
- I was …
- You were …
- She/he/it was …
- We were …
- They were …
The simple past tense also contains two forms in itself: the progressive tense and the continuous form. The progressive verb tense describes longer, ongoing actions that progress in some fashion before a shorter, interruptive activity. The continuous tense indicates how an action proceeded without interruption or is ongoing.
All progressive tenses use “-ing” at the end of a verb. In fact, this verb tense typically uses the verb ‘to be’ in front of another verb’s infinitive form with “-ing.” For example,
“They were sleeping.”
“He was talking.”
For the past continuous or progressive forms, we use the verbs was or were in the following manner:
- I was being …
- You were being …
- She/he/it was being …
- We were being …
- They were being …
Narrative perspectives: was vs. were
Do you recall how we used the past tense forms of “were” and “was” differently for I, she, we, or they pronouns? That’s because the verbs are affected by the narrative (i.e., the perspective of the storyteller).
English narrative perspectives:
- The first person (I, we): “I ran a mile.”
- The second person (you): “Did you want to talk about it?”
- The third person (She, he, it, they): “She doesn’t like emojis.”
The use of “was” and “were” depends on the narrative’s point of view. The first person perspective (I, we) uses “was,” while the second person perspective (you) uses “were.” The third-person perspective (she, he, it, they) only uses “were.”
Narrative mood: was vs. were
The verbs “were” and “was” are additionally affected by the narrative’s mood (i.e., indicative vs. subjunctive). The indicative mood conveys ‘what is’ or ‘is not,’ but the subjunctive mood expresses a hypothetical situation or fantasized reality.
Subjunctive phrases often include “if I were …” or “if I was …,” but this mood has different grammar rules than the indicative mood “I was …” or “you were …” For the subjunctive mood, avoid using “was” and only use “were” instead.
Subjunctive mood examples for was vs. were
Correct: “If I were a rich man.”
Incorrect: “If I was a rich man.”
Correct: “I wish I were taller.”
Incorrect: “I wish I was taller.”
Indicative mood examples for was vs. were
Correct: “He was at the store.”
Incorrect: “He were at the store.”
Correct: “They were great last night.”
Incorrect: “They was great last night.”
Correct: “I was like, ‘no way!”
Incorrect: “I were like, ‘no way!”
Singular and plural nouns: was vs. were
Verb forms also depend on the number of nouns that they act upon. In other words, how many nouns involve the act of “being”? If there is one noun, the verb is singular, but if there are more than two nouns, the verb is plural.
“Was” is a singular verb form and “were” is a plural verb form. This is why we exercise narrative rules for each verb form. “They” or “we” implies multiple nouns (were), while “I” or “you” conveys one noun (was).
Cheat sheet for remembering was vs. were
We know it seems as though there are a million rules for using was vs. were, but learning how to write the verb correctly becomes easier with practice. Using the grammar rules above, we can summarize the verb’s grammatical rules based on the indicative vs. subjunctive mood tenses:
Was vs. were for the indicative mood
Only use the verb was with the indicative mood and for the following verb forms:
- The first person singular past tense (I was).
- The third-person singular past tense (he was, she was, it was).
Use the verb were for:
- The second person singular past tense (you were).
- The second person plural past tense (I were, we were).
- The third person plural past tense (they were).
Simple past tense forms of was and were for the indicative mood:
- I/she/he/it was ….
- I/she/he/it was being ….
- You/we/they were …
- You/we/they were being …
Was vs. were for the subjunctive mood
For the subjunctive mood, use the verb were for:
- The first person singular subjunctive tense (I were).
- The second person singular subjunctive tense (you were).
- The third-person singular subjunctive tense (he were, she were, it were).
- The first person plural subjunctive tense (I were, we were).
- The second person plural subjunctive tense (you were).
- The third person plural subjunctive tense (they were).
Simple past tense forms of was and were for the subjunctive mood:
- If (pronoun) were …
- (Pronoun) wish (pronoun) were … (e.g., “I wish we were …”)
FAQ: Related to were vs was
If I use were or was, am I writing in passive voice?
The verbs ‘was’ or ‘were’ do not indicate passive voice by themselves, but we construct passive sentences by pairing a conjugation of ‘to be’ with a past participle of a different verb. For example,
‘To be’ + the past participle of transitive verbs:
“He was found.”
“The child is being found.”
‘To be’ + the present participle in progressive tenses:
“She is sleeping.”
“I have been sleeping.”
‘To be’ + the past participle of certain intransitive verbs (for archaic perfect tenses):
“He is risen.”
‘To be’ + the infinitive and ‘to’ to convey a future arrangement or obligation:
“I am to tend to the garden.”
“She was to become a great gardener.”
It’s worth noting that while most people believe the passive voice is a grammatical error, the passive voice isn’t technically incorrect. Most grammarians simply prefer the active voice because it emphasizes the sentence subject instead of the object that receives a verb.
What is the present perfect tense?
The present perfect tense connects the present to the past with an action that began in the past at an unspecified time. We can identify the present perfect tense through the use of “has been” or “have been.”
What is the past perfect tense?
The past perfect tense describes completed actions that occurred before a different, past event. We can identify past perfect tense through the use of “had been.”
Are verbs like was or were homophones?
A homophone is a set of words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings. The verbs ‘was’ and ‘were’ are not homophones because we pronounce them differently, they are spelled separately, and they share the same verb and meaning.
Think you’re ready to use the verb ‘be’ like a pro? Challenge your grammar know-how with the following multiple-choice questions for was vs. were.
- Which verb tense is not a form of the verb ‘to be’?
- True or false: the verb ‘was’ is the correct choice for the subjunctive mood?
- True or false: The indicative mood changes the word choice for was vs. were?
- Singular nouns correspond to which verb form of ‘to be’?
- Past tenses of the verb ‘to be’ do not include ________?
c. Was being
d. None of the above
- “Be.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Be.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
- “Grammar Handbook: Regular and Irregular Verbs.” Center for Writing Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013.
- “Passive Voice.” USC Rossier, University of Southern California, n.d.
- “To be.” Reverso Conjugation, Reverso-Softissimo, 2020.
- “What’s the Difference between progressive and continuous tenses?” Insights To English, TESOL International Association, 7 Aug 2018.