If I were a rich man… If I were a boy… Whether you want to start this “if I was” vs. “if I were” conversation with Fiddler on the Roof or Beyoncé, it’s a conversation we need to have.
Let’s talk unreal conditionals and the subjunctive mood. Actually, no, let’s not. That doesn’t sound very exciting.
Let’s talk music and musicians who get grammar. More exciting? Almost. But bear with me.
You know that if you went to see your favorite band yesterday, you’d use verbs like this: “I was there”; “it rocked”; “he was bummed to miss that solo”; “you were amazing on the drums.”
But if it wasn’t a real show—a pretend show, a show you’re dreaming about existing but that doesn’t, a hypothetical or unlikely show—you’d swap up your word choice like this: “If I were there”; “if he were there”; “if they were there.”
I were… are you cringing? Deep breath. It’s what you need here, whether you like it or not.
In unreal conditionals (darn it, I didn’t mean to let that slip in again!), you’ll often see words like “would” or “ought to.“ For example, “If asked, I would step up to the stage” or “If given the opportunity, she would have blown them all away.” But when you need the verb “to be” following that “if” in these unreal situations, it always remains “were,” even when you’re working with subjects like “I” or “he,” which typically pair with a “was.” This leads to phrases like “if I were lead singer” and “if it were my birthday.”
If I were a carpenter… If I were your woman… Personally, I’m impressed that so many artists get it right. Then there’s Gwen Stefani, who went rogue in If I Was a Rich Girl, a remix of the Fiddler on the Roof classic. The gender swap, I get, but the verb swap…? Why, Gwen, why? You just confused a generation.
Is it because the “if I was a rich girl” isn’t a hypothetical in her situation? She is indeed rich, so it’s not an unreal conditional? It’s real? Honestly, I think it’s a mistake, but we can pretend she’s just going to grammar levels over all of our heads.
As for the rest of us, know your “if I was” vs. “if I were” and own it. Whether you’re on stage, in the recording studio, or maybe just belting out your favorite jam in the shower.
Happy writing, folks.
Join 675+ subscribers and sign-up for my writing and editing email newsletter for more tips like this.