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When to Use Was & Were

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

'Was' and 'were' are both past tense versions of the verb 'be,' and knowing which one to use depends on the person and number of the noun doing the action. In this lesson, we will discuss the proper usage in detail.

I Was or I Were?

''Was'' and ''were'' both do the same job in a sentence. They are both past tense forms of the verb ''be,'' which is used to show a noun's state of being, or used as a helping verb in connection with other verbs.

So if both forms do the same thing, why do we need both of them? Well, it is just one of those little funny tricks that the English language likes to play, and the forms of ''be'' are particularly complex in this way, as it changes into several different forms, such as ''is,'' ''am,'' and ''are.''

These changes in a verb's form are known as conjugations and they are based on a verb's tense, person, and number. Tense refers to when the action takes place and person and number both describe the noun that is doing the action. We have already established that ''was'' and ''were'' are both in the past tense, indicating things that have already happened. So the distinction between ''was'' and ''were'' comes down to person and number, so let's take a closer look at those two categories.

Was is used in this movie title because The West is third person singular.
Was

Person

The easiest way to think about a verb's person is to picture three people: a person who is speaking, a person who is listening, and another person who is neither speaking nor listening.

When the person speaking (or writing) is talking about himself or herself, we call this first person, as it only involves the one person. In the first person, you will always use the verb ''was'' instead of ''were'':

  • I was born in 1981.
  • I was walking home yesterday when I got robbed.

If the speaker is referring to the person listening, this is the second person, as it now involves two people: the speaker and listener. In the second person, ''were'' is the verb used:

  • You were two hours late yesterday.
  • You were really good in the basketball game last week.

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