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"The irrealis mood form is unique to be, and limited to the 1st and 3rd person singular”

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2005

What did he mean by this?

"if you were" - About 222,000,000 results

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    "You was" is not standard English in any context. It does occur in some non-standard Englishes. Whether speakers of those non-standard varieties use the distinct irrealis form (whether for 2nd or any other person) is anybody's guess. I assume that H&P mean that the special irrealis form were is only available in 1st and 3rd person singular, because in the plural and 2nd person the verb is indistinguishable from the normal past.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 8, 2018 at 0:45

3 Answers 3

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I agree with Colin Fine's comment above:

H&P mean that the special irrealis form were is only available in 1st and 3rd person singular, because in the plural and 2nd person the verb is indistinguishable from the normal past

Hence the irrealis form is, as H&P said, "unique to" the 1st and 3rd person singular. You can't describe "You were" as irrealis because it is not a distinct form. Huddleston and Pullum don't regard the irrealis as a full mood.

Note that they used the term "mood form" rather than "mood". They argued that it was nonsensical to hypothesise the existence of an entire mood that differed from the past indicative in only one form (or two, depending how you look at it) of just one verb (be). It is better viewed as an isolated oddity, a mood form rather than a complete mood.

Traditional grammar referred to the "past subjunctive" and said that it was identical to the past indicative except for the 1st and 3rd persons singular of "be". Huddleston & Pullum reject the term "past subjunctive" on the grounds that (1) the past subjunctive never refers to past time (the term "past" describes its form, not its use), (2) the past subjunctive isn't the past tense of the subjunctive (the subjunctive form "be" is not a different tense of the irrealis "were"), (3) it is distinctive only as an isolated mood form - see above.

The irrealis is not an inversion of "was" and "were" - the fact that you found some examples of "you was" is irrelevant. Some dialects use "you was" (not as an irrealis form, though). "You was" is not standard English.

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Here's the trick:

  • If he were rich, he would buy the house.
  • If he had been rich, he would have bought the house. [past conditional]
  • If she were nice, I'd have tea with her.
  • If I were you, I'd memorize this.

It means that in unreal conditional sentences, the verb were is used for all the pronouns, including I and it/she/he instead of: I am, he/she/it is. I prefer the word unreal to irrealis.

I call these sentences, condition contrary to fact. That is, in my opinion, the easiest way to remember this.

If he were rich, he would buy the house. But he isn't, so he won't.

And remembers, actions verbs would be in the simple past too. But these sentences are always uttered in some present time.

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As I've argued in many posts, the irrealis mood is hokum perpetrated by modern grammarians to eviscerate what is really the subjunctive mood in English. Calling the subjunctive mood the irrealis mood is equivalent to my calling the trash around my house "flowers" and then asking people, "How do you like my flowers?" I can call my trash "flowers" all I may want, but the fact remains that my "flowers" are really "trash". Here are two answers of mine about the "subjunctive mood" (what some grammarians call "irrealis"):

What kind of conditional form is this sentence?.

Could 'it' be regarded as plural? Why is 'were' used instead of 'is' in "...if it were cleaned and fed..."?.

Here's a sample of a comparison of the indicative and subjunctive from Old English (circa A.D. 900):

past subjunctive of "to be" in Old English: ic ƿǣre (I were); past indicative: ic ƿæs (I was). present indicative: ic eom (I am); present subjunctive: ic bēo (I be). This runic letter ƿ is wynn; it makes a w sound. Present indicative of "will": ic ƿille (I will); past subjunctive: ic ƿolde (I would); present indicative of "shall": ic sceal (I shall); past subjunctive: ic sceolde (I should).

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