The play Fiddler on the Roof recently came through my city, and my friend kept singing her dad’s favorite song from that hit: “If I Were a Rich Man.”
My comment? “I’m glad the lyricist got the grammar right!”
Why is the use of “were” (not “was”) correct in this song title and similar phrases? Consider the conditional meaning associated with using an “if” clause. In this case, the lyrics “if I were a rich man” reflect a wishful condition, not a true statement.
You may recall how Tevye, the character who sang this song, lamented his lowly position as a milkman and wondered what wealth would bring to his life. If at one time he had been rich, he could factually say, “When I was a rich man.” But in this context, he could only hope to be rich.
What about the song “If I Were a Carpenter”? Here, the lyricist correctly uses “were” to depict a hope or dream, not a current fact.
When “Was” is Correct
So when would you use “was” (not “were”) in an “if” clause? When it introduces an indirect question or statement of fact. Examples:
- The boss asked if I was (not “were”) finished with the report. This factual statement is based on what’s true or possible, not something hypothetical.
- If he was (not “were”) guilty, he would have remained silent. This states a fact that’s likely true, not something conditional.
In the statements you make, remember to use “were” when the situation calls for being conditional, hypothetical, or wishful. And like Tevye, it’s how you can make a plea for the wealth you wish for!
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Barbara McNichol is passionate about helping administrative professionals add power to their pen. To assist in this mission, she has created a Word Trippers Tips resource to quickly find the right word when it matters most. It allows you to improve your writing through excellent weekly resources in your inbox, including a webinar, crossword puzzles, and a Word Tripper of the Week for 52 weeks. Enjoy a $30 discount at checkout with the code ODI at www.wordtrippers.com/odi.