by Barbara McNichol
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 in Fiddler on the Roof 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 the context of Fiddler on the Roof, 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 It’s Correct to Use “Was”
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 write, remember to use “were” when the situation calls for being conditional, hypothetical, or wishful. And like Tevye, that’s how you can make a plea for the wealth you wish for!