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was vs. were?

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was vs. were? [#permalink] New post 30 Jun 2012, 18:36
I don't understand why in sentences with 'if' i generally see 'were' used more often?

Have a look at this SC question:

A recent and popular self-help book wryly notes that if adolescence was not so painful, it would have a droll comedic aspect, at least in retrospect.

Correct answer is 'were not so painful, it'

Now generally speaking what would you say

1) If it was up to me i would take the exam next week
OR
2) If it were up to me I would take the exam next week.

doesn't 1 sound better? So if someone can please help explain this.

Thanks!
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Re: was vs. were? [#permalink] New post 30 Jun 2012, 19:02
The issue here is the rule regarding 'hypothetical subjunctives'. jko explains this concept well in his post.
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Re: was vs. were? [#permalink] New post 02 Jul 2012, 03:35
Generally speaking, when you're talking about something that could have been the case but isn't, then employ "were". The use of "was" might, at first, sound a little better; that's because it is arguably the more commonly-used phrase for everyday, informal speech. When tackling the GMAT, however, it is usually safer to use "were"; it is typically seen as the more formal of the two, and more appropriate for situations that call for proper English.

Before taking the GMAT, I too used to put "was" in place of "were". You'll get used to it over time.
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Re: was vs. were? [#permalink] New post 02 Jul 2012, 10:39
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The difference between 'were' and 'was', when used in conjunction with 'if', is important. 'If...were', known as the hypothetical subjunctive, is used for purely hypothetical situations, i.e. those situations that are more or less impossible. Let's take a look:

1) If I was in charge of this department, I would recommend longer worker days.

2) If I (Chris@magoosh) were President of the United States, I would cut income taxes.


The first instance requires a position that is attainable. That is we presume that the speaker could be head of the department. The second example, on the other hand, is a position the speaker would never hold. Of course, was the speaker Mitt Romney, one of the current candidates for President of the United States, to utter this sentence, then he would say, 'if I was President of the...' Meaning, that for him becoming President of the United States is not an impossible scenario.

Some other possible examples of the purely hypothetical:

1) If I were able to fly using nothing but my arms. I would soar over Yosemite Valley.

2) If we were able to end war, the world would be a better place.

As for your example: A recent and popular self-help book wryly notes that if adolescence was not so painful, it would have a droll comedic aspect, at least in retrospect.

Adolescence is a painful experience. Period. Therefore to imagine it as otherwise requires the use of the hypothetical, 'if adolescence were not so painful...'

Finally, do not rely on your ear. In most cases, doing so will only hurt you on the GMAT. What sounds good is often based on colloquial use of words. Were the GMAT a test of the colloquial (notice the hypothetical subjunctive), then using one's ear would be fine :).
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Re: was vs. were?   [#permalink] 02 Jul 2012, 10:39
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