Right. So. As I’m editing a story tonight, I’ve come across a couple of times where I’ve had to scratch my head and say a sentence out loud. A lot. Why? I’m glad you asked (you didn’t but be a good hostage and pretend I’m important for a moment).
“…a strange foreigner of high birth who threw silver coins around as if he were allergic to them.”
This is one of the sentences in question. If you exchange “was” for “were” in this sentence, it still sounds right. Right? Sort of? And then when you start thinking it does sound correct, you start questioning that. Because “were” starts to sound more correct again.
Okay, maybe I’m the only one with brain damage and has trouble with this. However, I’ve seen this question often, and when Google can autocomplete my query perfectly when I go searching for the answer (remember, English classes were a long time ago for me), I feel better knowing that others have been in this situation.
All of the sites that I respect have the same answer, but since I like Grammar Girl the most, I’ll use hers:
“Believe it or not, verbs have moods just like you do. Yes, before the Internet and before emoticons, somebody already thought it was important to communicate moods. So, like many other languages, English has verbs with moods ranging from commanding to questioning and beyond. The mood of the verb “to be” when you use the phrase “I were” is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it for times when you’re talking about something that isn’t true or you’re being wishful.“
This particular piece of confusing English badassery is known as “subjunctive verbs.” It’s badass because it always kicks my ass. Thankfully I have smart editors who, when not laughing at my attempts to relay an intelligible story, make giant, angry red slashes on my manuscripts (or, you know, uses the Track Changes feature in MS Word) when I fail this ongoing test. I’m also bad at using “that” instead of “who.”
There you go, young writers. And old writers like me who forgot most what what I learned in high school and college after banging my head on the desk too many times trying to come up with a plausible storyline that didn’t read like it was written in blue crayon.
PS: If you like Grammar Girl and want her tips to come up first, just make sure you always add “Grammar Girl” to your search. But you knew this already.