As if

 

Q:

I've been noticing in the novels I've read lately that the subjunctive isn't used after if when the clause starts with as if... Why not?

His skin was rosy, as if he was never more alive.

Thanks all!

Linda
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A:

What a strange sentence for a novelist to write! Does he/she mean that his skin is rosy and that he is not alive? If that is indeed what the novelist intends, the sentence should read:

His skin was rosy, as if he were never more alive.

Were would indicate that the sentence is contrary-to-fact; were would be used instead of was in formal English, or even careful English. It may be, though, that the author means to express a contrary-to-fact situation, and is just using a less formal and very common verb form: was instead of were after as if.

When, however, we see was instead of were in this sentence (out of context), we could think that it is possible that the man is alive.

As if (and as though, which means the same thing) may appear in indicative sentences, or in conditional sentences with a form of the subjunctive. From Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985, page 1110):

If the comparison is factual, the verb in the comparison follows the normal rules for temporal reference:

He looks as if he’s getting better.

If the comparison is hypothetical (implying lack of reality), a subjunctive or hypothetical past may be used as an alternative:

She treats me as if I’m a stranger.
She treats me as if I was a stranger.
She treats me as if I were a stranger.

Looking at some examples of our own:

(a)

Tony looks as if he?/strong>s very rich.

In sentence (a), there is the possibility that Tony is indeed very rich. Perhaps he wears expensive clothes and drives an expensive car. The speaker doesn't know the facts, but is open to the possibility that the subject is indeed rich.

Here is the same sentence, but with contrary-to-fact suggestion:

(b)

Tony looks as if he were very rich.

In sentence (b), although Tony looks rich, there is the unexpressed knowledge that the speaker knows that Tony is really not very rich; he only appears to be.

Here is another sentence with an indicative verb:

(c)

Sandra speaks English as if she comes from Australia. Does she?

It’s possible that Sandra comes from Australia in sentence (c). However, if this sentence is constructed as an unreal conditional, as in (d):

(d)

Sandra speaks English as if she came from Australia,

it is believed that Sandra does not come from Australia, but her speech sounds like an Australian’s.

In summary, as if appears with an indicative verb when the verb describes reality: a possible situation or action. As if appears with a subjunctive form of the verb when the verb describes an unreal situation or action.

Still, some speakers and writers, including published novelists, may use the less formal indicative where a subjunctive form would be more “correct.?Your example, "His skin was rosy, as if he was never more alive" is an example of this style.