Were vs. Was

A client recently stumped me with a question about a change I had made to her work, from “what if it were…” to “what if it was…” The gist of the phrase was a rhetorical question about an actual possibility: What if it (was/were) a manager’s responsibility to do X, Y and Z?

I went with “was.” Why? Well, I confess I made my original change on instinct, but her question offered a good exercise to look up the reasoning behind it. This is what I found in The Associated Press Stylebook, a widely consulted guide to style, on using “was vs. were” in the subjunctive tense:

“Use the subjunctive mood of a verb for contrary-to-fact conditions, and expressions of doubts, wishes or regrets.” Sentences like, “If I were a bird, I would have wings and could fly,” or “I wish it were possible to change the past” are examples of contrary-to-fact conditions.

Then, AP says: “Sentences that express a contingency or hypothesis may use either the subjunctive or the indicative mood depending on the context. In general, use the subjunctive if there is little likelihood that a contingency might come true.”

So, in many cases, use of the subjunctive is up for grammatical debate.

In my client’s case, the rhetorical “What if it was a manager’s responsibility to X, Y and Z?” expresses a hypothesis that she subsequently showed to be true in her article (“Managers should do X, Y and Z. Here’s why.”). For me, that supported using the indicative mood—was—in this case.

What do you think?

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