Irrealis 'Were' (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

alien
"If I were a Martian, strayed to earth, long after the death of the last man, I could reconstruct the whole of human civilization from one female hat" (Conrad Aiken, Great Circle, 1933). Because the speaker presumably isn't a Martian, he uses irrealis were. (Science Picture Co./Getty Images)

Definition

In English grammar, irrealis involves the use of were with a subject in the first-person singular or third-person singular to refer to an unreal or hypothetical condition or event--one that's not true or that hasn't occurred (e.g., "If I were you, I'd go home").

In contrast to the more common use of were as a past-tense form (e.g., "They were lost"), irrealis were is a nontensed mood form, similar to the subjunctive.

Irrealis were is sometimes called the "were-subjunctive" or (somewhat misleadingly) the "past subjective." As Huddleston and Pullum point out, "Irrealis were does not refer to past time, and there is no synchronic reason to analyse it as a past tense form" (The Cambridge Grammar Of The English Language, 2002).

Defined more broadly, irrealis refers to an event that hasn't occurred (or at least hasn't yet occurred), while realis refers to an event that has occurred.

Examples and Observations

  • "I was telling Grant that if I were an alien and I came down to earth from some far-off planet, there are a few things I would notice about people, and the first thing I would notice is the way they looked, that is, if people looked different on my planet."

    (Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz. Thomas Nelson, 2003) 

  • "Roxanne stood talking to him with one long-nailed hand on his shoulder, the other at her hip as if she were a model at a trade show trying to sell him the grill."

    (Kate Milliken, "The Whole World." If I'd Known You Were Coming. The University of Iowa Press, 2013) 

  • "They took to looking at him as if he were on the other side of a dirty window."

    (Kate Milliken, "Inheritance."If I'd Known You Were Coming. The University of Iowa Press, 2013) 

  • "If I weren't so broke and unsettled, I'd adopt a dog tomorrow."

    (Andrea Meyer, Room for Love. St. Martin's Griffin, 2007) 

Moodiness: The Subjunctive and the Irrealis Were

"Traditional grammarians get tripped up by the verb be because they have to squeeze two different forms, be and were (as in If I were free), into a single slot called 'subjunctive.' Sometimes they call be the 'present subjunctive' and were the 'past subjunctive,' but in reality there's no difference in tense between them.

Rather, the two belong to different moods: whether he be rich or poor is subjunctive; If I were a rich man is irrealis ('not real'). . . . In English [the irrealis] exists only in the form were, where it conveys factual remoteness: an irrealis proposition is not just hypothetical (the speaker does not know whether it is true or false) but counterfactual (the speaker believes it's false). Tevye the Milkman [in the musical Fiddler on the Roof] was emphatically not a rich man, nor were Tim Hardin, Bobby Darin, Johnny Cash, or Robert Plant (all of whom sang 'If I Were a Carpenter') in any doubt as to whether they were carpenters. Counterfactual, by the way, need not mean outlandish--one can say If she were half an inch taller, that dress would be perfect--it just means 'known to be not the case.'"

(Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style. Viking, 2014)

An Exceptional Form

"This use of were is highly exceptional: there is no other verb in the language where the modal remoteness meaning is expressed by a different inflectional form from the past time meaning. The irrealis mood form is unique to be, and limited to the 1st and 3rd person singular. It is an untidy relic of an earlier system, and some speakers usually, if not always, use preterite was instead."

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

 Also See