Here are two sentences from Diana Wynne Jones's "Conrad's Fate":

1 Christopher just stood and looked at the Count as if he were summing him up.

2 Champ was rasping out breaths as if Christopher's neckcloth was throttling him.

This author seems to use "was" and "were" interchangeably in these sorts of sentences. I've been told that in cases where it's not clear whether the condition is real or unreal, the use of "was" or "where" can make it clear.

3 Champ was rasping out breaths as if Christopher's neckcloth were throttling him.

So in 2, Champ (the dog) is really being throttled, and in 3, he is not really being throttled.

I'm a native speaker, and my idiolect does not make this distinction of using "was" for real conditions after "as if" and "were" for unreal conditions after "as if". Is this distinction really made by any speaker of English? Or is it just made in some writing (Wynne Jones doesn't make it).

Because if the distinction exists, then a couple of things follow:

a) the distinction is only made with the verb "be", and in the present and past progressive of other verbs

b) it is only made in the first and third person singular.

This seems like a weird distribution for a very subtle semantic difference.
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Hi Alienvoord

Your analysis is correct. Many a grammar expert will put on airs and insist that only were is correct for unreal condition despite the fact that was is also universally used. In lofty style were is used at least in BrE even in spoken English. At least that's the impression the authors of the TV series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister wanted to give. People often say that were is fighting a losing battle here, but I'm not so sure about that. As English is virtually devoid of inflections, the highbrow section won't give up easily. I kind of wish they won't as well. The was/weredistinction provides a good point for heated discussions!Emotion: smile

It may interest you and others that a similar distinction became obsolete in Swedish a long time ago. Swedish used to have a subjunctive form (vore), which was replaced by the indicative (var). It is plain to see that the two verb forms are related to were and was. These days a Swede could really attract attention by using vore in speech or writing. It simply isn't used anymore - and Swedish is none the worse for that. In many other ways, Swedish grammar is more complicated than English grammar, though.

Those are interesting examples; especially as (without context) I would have expected your #1 to present a real event (really summing up), and #2 an unreal event (not throttling).

Where an unreal condition relates to the real past, I find the subjunctive after "as if" very uncomfortable; thus I would prefer #1 here:

1. He looked at me as if I was mad

2. He looked at me as if I were mad

That said, both forms seem to occur in reputable writers.

On the more general question, my impression is that some BrE speakers at least distinguish between the "was" and "were" constructions. Such a speaker might for example use "were" for a more "speculative" hypothesis, where the condition was open, and "was" in a "dismissive" context, where the condition had been rejected, e.g.

3. If she were rich, she would live in a bigger house [open]
4. If she was rich, she would live in a bigger house [rejected]

But I'm not sure how it would be possible to verify such an impression; as soon as you make native speakers conscious of their grammatical habits, their habits change.

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Hmmm, I haven't too much to add to this, and as a BrE speaker, I'm here speaking only for myself, not for BrE speakers in general.

With MrP's sentences 1. & 2., I might use either, in both colloquial and written English. However, I think I'd be more inclined to use 1. in spoken English and 2. when writing.

As for 3. and 4. I'm pretty sure I'd use 3. most of the time, irrespective of whether I were speaking or writing. I don't think I'm actually capable of performing the mental gymnastics required to decide whether it were an 'open' or 'rejected' condition , and in any event, if I were to use 4. at all, I think it would only ever be as a colloquialism.
Thanks for your replies.

Like yizhivika, I find these open and rejected conditions much too subtle. I can't imagine myself making this distinction. So it's interesting that some speakers might in fact make it, or at least think they make it. As for Diana Wynne Jones, she seems to use "was" and "were" interchangeably in "as if" conditionals.
Alienvoord I find these open and rejected conditions much too subtle. I can't imagine myself making this distinction.
I wonder whether the phenomenon is unconscious, where it occurs. Once native speakers become conscious of the subjunctive, they seem to discard the distinction, and over-"were"-ify.

(Cf. the sudden consciousness of the present subjunctive, which may cause a speaker to sprinkle his utterances with "if it be", "whether it be", etc.)

Some older writers seem to have the distinction; I recall (but can't at this moment locate) a sentence in Berkeley where both forms are used.

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I know that some people claim to make the distinction with "if" conditionals (the second conditional). It's possible I make it unconsciously. But does anyone make it with "as if" conditionals? Here's another British example, from Tom Baker's autobiography:

I remember going into a hairdresser's shop in Chelsea to have some of my hair cut off. As I went in the staff were delighted to see me and asked for my autograph. I sent out for a bottle of vodka and some peach juice and we all had a slug of it before the selected cutter got to work. He was very chatty and it took about forty-five minutes altogether. I told him to take off quite a lot. He did so and as I strolled out nobody recognized me. I was a great shock. I felt as if I was invisible, as if I were dead.
AlienvoordI felt as if I was invisible, as if I were dead.

Hi Alienvoord

I may not be the right person to answer your question because I don't even know the Anglo-Saxon classification - or whatever native speakers prefer to call it - of conditionals.Emotion: smile I was taught the English conditional structures when I went to school and I thought that structurally they were very simple indeed. I noticed a long time ago that the few verb forms that there are in English are often used in a very messy way and the reader/hearer often has to figure out the meaning by using common sense and taking the context into account.

I see nothing exceptional in the above sentence. In Finnish, the equivalent of was would be a past tense and were would indicate a hypothetical condition. No one would find the sentence odd in any way, and in my opinion nobody with a good knowledge of Finnish would contemplate rewording it. Quite frankly, I don't see the point here. Do native speakers think there is something strange about the sentence?

I felt as if I was invisible, as if I were dead.
Cool BreezeDo native speakers think there is something strange about the sentence?
I do. In fact, I laughed. It made me giddy with cognitive dissonance.

as if I was invisible seems just fine on its own.

as if I were dead seems just fine on its own.

But put them together and something like looking at the Necker cube starts happening in my brain! Emotion: smile
And I would definitely say
as if I were mad.

So I've been tainted by my knowledge of the subjunctive, I suppose. Emotion: crying
Or does it mean that I have not (yet?) sufficiently rejected the hypothesis that I could be mad? [:^)]
Probably the latter. Emotion: surprise
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