How long does the subjunctive follow after "As if..."

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PocoDio

New Member
English
Hi there.

My sentence is "They said it quietly, as if to speak about it openly was as great a sin as committing the act itself."

Should 'was' here be in the subjunctive? Should it be 'were'? I know the first verb following 'as if' or 'as though' takes the subjunctive, but does that apply on following verbs?

Thanks.
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    'Was' is the immediately following verb. The structure of the phrase is 'as if' + Subject + Verb 'was' + Predicative Complement. The subject of the verb 'was' is the infinitival clause 'to speak about it openly'. The 'as if' can't affect anything inside that: it's an infinitival structure, so it follows its own rules.

    Yes, you could say 'as if <Subject> were . . .' Many people do use 'were' in this position. But it is never necessary. It can always be 'was'.
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    You could certainly use the subjunctive "were" in your sentence, Poco Dio. I would. It would also be normal to use "was". Writers and speakers differ considerably in their use of the subjunctive after phrases like "as if". Their choices are really more a matter of style and preference than they are a matter of grammar.

    PS Cross-posting with ETB.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I favour, "They said it quietly, as if to speak about it openly was were as great a sin as committing the act itself." but, as has been said, there is no following verb.
     

    PocoDio

    New Member
    English
    Ok, thanks for your help guys.

    I must confess I thought 'were' was necessary after 'as if' rather than just an option!
     

    Scholiast

    Senior Member
    With respect, Sir entangledbank (there must be a previous thread here, but I don't see it - Moderator?):

    I agree that this use of "was" is much in use. But in formal grammar, counterfactuals always require a subjunctive.
     
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    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    With respect, Sir entangledbank (there must be a previous thread here, but I don't see it - Moderator?):

    I agree that this use of "was" is much in use. But in formal grammar, counterfactuals always require a subjunctive.
    That's a bold and interesting assertion, Scholiast.

    Here are a few sentences from edited prose I found in COCA*, which provided 559 examples of "as if it was". Did all these people get it wrong?

    Walter L. Klein, "Farallon Woman": We went aft to the drive, which she looked at as if it was totally alien.
    Eric Marony, "Avram's Vinyard": Hillel Yayin leaned against a cask of wine, scratching the coarse gray hair of his head as if it was an unruly animal,...
    Julie Myerson, "The Gardner", published in "New Statesman": It had slipped out. She looked at him as if it was his fault.
    Seth Colter Walls, "Pop Goes the Art House" in "Newsweek": The coincidence seemed as if it was trying to tell us something, so Newsweek invited them all out to the movies.

    I'm not sure whether the examples here meet your definition of "formal grammar". None of them, admittedly, came from academic journals. :)

    *Corpus of Contemporary American English
     
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    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Just to add to owlman's examples: I never use the subjunctive after "as if" - though I'll happily defend others' right to do so if they wish:).
     
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    PocoDio

    New Member
    English
    I must've had it all wrong then! In speech I wouldn't use it, but in every writing piece I thought it was absolutely necessary. Guess I was wrong!
     

    Scholiast

    Senior Member
    That's a bold and interesting assertion, Scholiast.

    Here are a few sentences from edited prose I found in COCA*...
    Unfortunately, the Economist's Style Guide is temporarily unavailable for me to supply a URL. I must therefore quote:

    "If you are posing a hypothesis contrary to fact, you must use the subjunctive" (p. 66 of the 2005 edition).

    The Economist is (rightly) highly regarded not only for its content but for the quality of its columnists' writing.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    Hi there.

    My sentence is "They said it quietly, as if to speak about it openly was as great a sin as committing the act itself."

    Should 'was' here be in the subjunctive? Should it be 'were'? I know the first verb following 'as if' or 'as though' takes the subjunctive, but does that apply on following verbs?

    Thanks.
    What follows "as if" does not have to be a counterfactual hypothesis:

    A. He speaks as if he knows what he's talking about.
    B. He speaks as if he were knowledgeable.

    Both of these sentences are about how he speaks. Sentence A says that the way he speaks suggests he knows what he's talking about; sentence B says he speaks the way he would if he were knowledgeable. The meanings, then, are almost, but not quite, the same.

    Frankly, I would find "as though" more natural than "as if" in B and "like" more natural than "as if" in A. But I am aware that "like" is frowned upon in formal writing and even by some in everyday speech, and "as if" would be my choice for a substitute.

    C. They say it quietly, as if to speak about it openly is as a great a sin as committing the act itself.
    D. They say it quietly, as if to speak about it openly was as a great a sin as committing the act itself.
    E. They say it quietly, as if to speak about it openly were as a great a sin as committing the act itself.

    For me, sentence C is like sentence A, saying their speaking quietly is suggestive, sentence E is like sentence B, saying their speaking resembles a situation that does not need to be real, and was in sentence D is past tense (meaning something like "used to be") and is also suggestive, like A and C.

    I accept that those who say "if I was you" instead of "if I were you" might as easily use D as a substitute for E, but for me the distinction is worth holding onto.
     
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    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I agree that this use of "was" is much in use. But in formal grammar, counterfactuals always require a subjunctive.
    Short answer: yes, after "as if..." the subjunctive is needed. In your specimen sentence there is no following verb.
    The sentence in #1 asks about the possible use of the were subjunctive.
    But the curious (and bad) advice quoted here seems also to apply to the present subjunctive.
    It leads to absurd sentences like the following:

    "He is no expert although he speaks as if he be one."

    As for the Economist Style Guide (#13), which no doubt contains some sensible advice, here is what it has to say on the matter (11th edition, 2015). I have underlined the relevant parts.

    "If you find yourself writing She looked like she had had enough or It seemed like he was running out of puff, you should replace like
    with as if or as though, and you probably need the subjunctive: She looked as if she had had enough, It seemed as if he were running
    out of puff
    (or, even better, He seemed to be running out of puff)."
    [Note the word probably. No justification is given for its use.]

    "If you are posing a hypothesis contrary to fact, you must use the subjunctive. If I were you … or If Hitler were alive today, he could tell us whether he
    kept a diary
    . If the hypothesis may or may not be true, you do not use the subjunctive. If this diary is not Hitler’s, we shall be glad we did not
    publish it
    ." [Again why "you must use the subjunctive"?]

     
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