How to use WAS & WERE in English?

‘Was’ and ‘were’ are verbs that we use in the past tense. In this article, we will master 3 different usages of was and were and the difference between was and were.

Different usages of ‘was’ and ‘were

WAS and WERE are used in the past tense in three different situations. Here are the following situations:

1. To describe a person or a thing in the PAST
2. To name/rename a person or a thing in the PAST
3. To say what someone WAS doing in the PAST 

Advanced usages of ‘was’ and ‘were’

  1. To talk about what was done to something or somebody in the past at some time (past indefinite tense, passive voice)
  2. Was and were in subjunctive mood

Before we look at these situations separately, let’s understand what to use ‘was’ and ‘were’ with.

WAS vs WERE

  • WAS = I, he, she, it & all singular noun names (singular subject)
  • WERE = we, you, they & all plural noun names (plural subject)

Singular noun names: Archit, Tom, Jyoti, doctor, singer, mother, car, bus, table, etc.
Plural noun names: students, parents, teachers, sisters, brothers, cars, buses, tables, etc.

Use of was and were in English
Use of was and were in English

WAS and WERE usages

1. To describe a person or a thing in the past

The very first use of was or were is to describe a person or a non-living thing in the past. Here, we use an adjective or adjective phrase after was or were.

Structure: Subject + was/were + adjective

Examples:

  • I was smart.
  • He was naughty in school.
  • She was careless last year.
  • She was close to me in college.
  • It was beautiful.
  • The movie was motivating.
  • Your family was really supportive.
  • Rahul was very arrogant in his childhood.
  • Jyoti was really cute.
  • I was in Mumbai last week.
  • I was about to cry.
  • You were hardworking.
  • They were very beautiful.
  • We were good at singing.
  • My friends were stupid.
  • We were with the right people.
  • The buses were in the wrong side.
  • Jon and I were amazing at acting. (Compound subject = Jon and I)

Notice that we are using was and were to describe the subject in the past; we are talking about how the subject was or were in the past using an adjective or an adjective phrase.

2. To name/rename a person or a thing in the past

The second use of was and were is to give a name to a person or a thing in the past. Here, we talk about what the subject was or were in the past. We use a noun or a noun phrase after was or were.

Structure: Subject + was/were + noun

Examples:

  • I was a teacher.
  • He was an amazing singer.
  • She was my love.
  • It was a crazy idea.
  • Jyoti was an artist.
  • Conor was an unbeatable fighter back in the days.
  • My father was a cook for some years.
  • You were my best friend.
  • We were friends.
  • They were terrible human beings.
  • My parents were my friends.

Notice that we are using was and were to tell what the subject was or were in the past.

3. To say what someone was doing in the past

The third use of was and were is to talk about an action that was happening in the past at a certain time. Here, we talk about what the subject was or were doing in the past.

Structure: Subject + was/were + V1+ing

Examples:

  • He was sleeping.
  • I was talking to her last night.
  • She was taking a class in the morning.
  • It was running fast.
  • Jacob was fighting yesterday.
  • The company was going through a bad time last year.
  • You were eating when I called.
  • They were not studying properly.
  • We were partying last night.
  • My neighbors were playing loud music.
  • Some people were fighting in the morning.

In the first two cases, was and were function as a linking verb (main verb), but here, was/were function as a helping verb (auxiliary verb).

Notice that we are using was and were to refer to an action that was happening in the past at some time. If the time of the action is already understood or unknown, don’t mention it. Else, it is important to talk about the time of the action. These sentences are in the Past Continuous tense.

WAS or WERE ūüėČ

We already have seen that it is pretty much easy to select the subject we use with use was or were.

  • WAS = singular subject
  • WERE = plural subject
  • Singular subject = third person pronouns (He, she, it), first person pronoun (only ‘I’) and all the singular noun names
  • Plural subject = first person pronoun (we), second person pronoun (you), and third person pronoun (they), and all the plural noun names

Note: When talking about any of these three cases using indefinite pronouns as the subject, use ‘was’ as they are considered singular in English. Here are some of the most common indefinite pronouns:

someone, somebody, anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, no one, nobody, something, anything, everything, nothing, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere, nowhere

Examples:

  • Everyone was nice to me. ✅
  • Everyone were nice to me.
  • Someone was following me last night. ✅
  • Someone were following me last night. ❌
  • Everything was beautiful. ✅
  • Everything were beautiful. ❌
  • Nobody was speaking in the class. ✅
  • Nobody were speaking in the class. ❌

Advanced usages of ‘was’ and ‘were

1. To talk about what was done to something or somebody (Past indefinite tense, passive voice)

Here, we use was and were to talk about what was done in the past. The sentences, here, are in the passive voice, and the focus is given on whom or what the action was acted upon, not the doer of the action.

Structure: Subject + was/were + V3 + (by object)

Active: He called a meeting.
Passive: A meeting was called (by him).

Active: Someone stole my cars last night.
Passive: My cars were stolen last night.

More examples:

  • Some people were arrested last week.
  • Your mother was taken to the hospital in the morning.
  • The meeting was called off before I could reach there.
  • This song was written last year.
  • Many people were fired because of the pandemic.

2. If I was or If I were

This is one more situation where people get confused as to what to use: was or were.

If you are writing a sentence in a subjunctive mood, we use the verb ‘were‘ with both singular and plural subjects. Were in subjunctive mood talks about an imaginary or unreal situation.

Examples:

  • If I were a dog, I would bite you.
  • If he were your father, he wouldn’t let you do this.
  • If I were rich, she would marry me.
  • If she were my wife, I would never leave her.
  • I wish he were loyal to her.
  • He wished she were born in a progressive family.

Notice that all these sentences refer to some impossible or unreal situations. We don’t follow the subject-verb agreement in this case. If you used ‘was’ with a singular subject, it would not be completely incorrect; it would be grammatically unsound though.

In informal conversations, we can use ‘was’ with a singular subject in a subjunctive mood though.

  • If I was rich, I wouldn’t live here.
  • If he was good at speaking, he would get selected.
  • If she was my girlfriend, I would never leave her.

More WAS and WERE examples

  • I was in hurry when you called.
  • She was furious last night.
  • Jonny was about to cry when he was given the award.
  • Most of my family members were present there.
  • If I were a magician, I would pull a pigeon out of my pocket.
  • He was in Rome last year.
  • Nobody was listening to me in the meeting.
  • Everyone was treated well in the party.

Try the following exercise to check your understanding of the topic!

Practice set!

  1. He __ looking for you last night.
  2. She ___ upset with you.
  3. I wish she __ my girlfriend.
  4. If he __ my friend, I would not let him hang out with those guys.
  5. Let’s suppose I __ with you right now. What would you do?
  6. You brag about your home as if it __ a paradise.
  7. Everything __ done properly.
  8. I __ called out by a professional fighter.
  9. You __ amazing last night.
  10. Most people __ not taught about earning money.

Answers:

  1. was
  2. was
  3. were
  4. were
  5. were
  6. were
  7. was
  8. was
  9. were
  10. were

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1 thought on “How to use WAS & WERE in English?”

  1. This article is very helpful, Thank you for keeping it simple for us‚̧

    Some examples;
    1. I was sleeping some time before.
    2. My father was dancing in the party last night.
    3. Ashish was talking to me yesterday.
    4. Max was a hard working man.
    5. If I were rich, I would buy an I phone.

    Reply

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