If the flow “were” working or “was”

I’m trying to understand why the plural is used in this case instead of the singular. The sentence uses the plural version of the past tense of “be” when referring to “the flow”.

Why is the sentence written this way “If the flow were working” instead of “If the flow was working”?

If this was at the present tense, I don’t think it would’ve been written as “If the flow are working”.

The snippet is pulled from the Popular Science magazine, summer issue of 2019 page 64.

If the flow were working properly the ground would filter rainwater, …

Popular Science, Summer 2019, page 64



What you see isn’t using the plural past tense conjugation “were” of the verb “to be” but is using the singular past subjunctive mood conjugation “were.”

When a hypothetical scenario is raised, one that hasn’t actually happened, we use the subjunctive mood. In English, the past subjunctive mood uses the exact same words as the past tense for every verb except one: the verb “to be.”


Past Tense

  • I was
  • you were
  • he/she/it was
  • we were
  • you all were
  • they were

Past Subjunctive Mood

  • I were
  • you were
  • he/she/it were
  • we were
  • you all were
  • they were

While in the vernacular, it is often said this way, it is actually improper to say “if the flow was working properly” unless talking about an actual past event in which that didn’t take place. That isn’t the scenario that is being posed, though. The scenario being posed is an imaginary or hypothetical one where that happening results in a conditional consequence coming true, which grammatically requires the subjunctive mood.

Source : Link , Question Author : slybloty , Answer Author : Benjamin Harman

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