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1.I used to think that we could use past perfect to form sentences that are used to express past unreal comparisons. But Michael Swan's words confused me: note that we do not use a past perfect for a past unreal comparison. She looked as if she was rich, but she wasn’t. (NOT --- as if she had been rich.).

This seems weird to me. I thought the reason that we used past perfect for subjunctive mood was due to the fact that we use the verb "were" (or "was", in everyday conversations and writing) for a present unreal situation, so if we want to express a past counterfactual conditional sentence, in order to avoid confusion, we usually say something like "if he had been...he would have...". But now Michael Swan says that although the usage is fine with past counterfactual conditional sentences, you can not do so when you are forming a sentence for past unreal comparison.

2.Is it possible to form a past unreal sentence in which the content is about the future in the past? I'm pretty sure that we can write something like "He looked as if he was going to do a stage dive." (in which the mood of the sentence is not a subjunctive one), but is it possible to form a similar sentence in terms of the subjunctive mood?
I actually came up with three different sentences:

(1) He looked as if he had been going to do a stage dive. (But of course he wasn't, because the stage was so high that he might kill himself by doing so.)
─> This one seems pretty clunky and wrong to me.

(2) He looked as if he was going to do a stage dive, but he couldn't/ wasn't. (Because the stage was so high that he might kill himself by doing so.)
─>This one seems more natural but still very wordy.

(3) He looked as if he had been about to do a stage dive. ─> This one seems fine but I'm not sure whether or not the meaning has changed.
Comments  
Sunny Yen She looked as if she was rich, but she wasn’t.
The first point to note is that the grammar for "as if" is not the same as for "if". You can find almost every tense after "as if". The tense sequence need not be exactly the same as in a conditional sentence. By the way, you can have "were" instead of "was" in the given sentence. (as if she were/was rich)
Sunny YenIs it possible to form a past unreal sentence in which the content is about the future in the past?
Yes.

(A) He looked as if he were [going to / about to] do a stage dive.

(1) and (3) don't do what you want them to, as I understand what you're trying for.

(B) He looked as if he had been [going to / about to] do a stage dive.

The meaning of that is almost too painful to contemplate without giving the present tense form first:

(C) He looks as if he was [going to / about to] do a stage dive. Now he looks as if he was going to do something before. Take this and put the whole thing in the past to get sentence (B) above.

In brief, I don't think (B) or (C) say anything coherent enough to be useful.

CJ
Thanks for the respond! I hope you won't mind if I ask more questions.

First:
Now I'm more curious. You said " You can find almost every tense after "as if". ". Does it mean that what Swan says in his book is not entirely correct, because past perfect is one of every tense?

Second:
May I say that on the basis of what you just said, there's actually nothing wrong with using the verb "were" in past unreal comparison? (which means it is actually possible to use the verb "were" in both present unreal and past unreal comparison without being ungrammatical?)
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Sunny YenThanks for the respond! I hope you won't mind if I ask more questions.
I don't mind, but I don't think I always follow the subtlety of your questions.
Sunny YenYou said " You can find almost every tense after "as if". ". Does it mean that what Swan says in his book is not entirely correct, because past perfect is one of every tense?
No. Swan is telling you how to do that particular grammar pattern. I'm telling you that if you look through a corpus of English, you will find "as if" followed by many different tenses. There's nothing contradictory about those two facts. For example you can probably still find "as if ... had been ..." as a pattern in some sentences even though it's not correct in Swan's example. (She looked as if she had been punched in the face.)
Sunny YenMay I say that on the basis of what you just said, there's actually nothing wrong with using the verb "were" in past unreal comparison?
I can only say that I've seen "were" used that way. (...looked as if she were rich) I can't say that it must be correct for every possible sentence.

CJ
Thank you CJ. I still need some time to figure all this out, but your answer is indeed helpful. As a non-native English learner, I have been puzzled by questions of how to correctly understand subjunctive mood for quite a long time...
Sunny YenI have been puzzled by questions of how to correctly understand subjunctive mood for quite a long time.
Don't obsess about the "real-unreal" distinction, especially as it involves "as if". I may be wrong, but it seems that most of your questions have more to do with time relationships than with "real-unreal" problems. In my opinion, "as if" is by definition unreal, so it forces an unreal reading on the text whether you use a subjunctive or not.

(1) He's speaking as if he is drunk is just as good as He's speaking as if he were drunk. It's just that the latter is more formal. as if he were drunk inherits its place in time from He's speaking, i.e., present time.

The past gets trickier, giving this unexpected result:

(2) He spoke as if he was drunk is just as good as He spoke as if he were drunk. The latter is more formal. as if he were drunk inherits its place in time from He spoke, i.e., past time.

He spoke as if he had been drunk implies that he had been drunk before he spoke, but he was no longer drunk at the time he spoke. This more complex time relationship is not often used because it's not really very useful in most ordinary conversations. Even though you expect this to be the past of (1) above, because of this complex implication, it's not.

CJ
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CJ:
I guess my confusion arise from my treating the "as if" construction as the "if...would/will" construction. Since you have pointed it out, now I do understand that these two constructions are not exactly governed by the same set of grammar rules.

Given this, I can see why you said that He spoke as if he had been drunk implies that he had been drunk before he spoke. It is just the same as how we understand the relation between past/past perfect tense in normal statement. It's not like those cases of past counterfactual conditional sentences, in which we use past perfect tense.

“was” and “were” are not interchangeable. the latter is subjunctive in these examples. for careful wielders of english, this isn’t a question of register; it’s a question of meaning.


”he spoke as if he was drunk” implies that maybe he was in fact drunk. it’s like saying, “he spoke in the manner of one who is drunk (because he was drunk).”


”he spoke as if he were drunk” means he probably or even definitely was not drunk, but it seemed that way. that’s the effect of the subjunctive—it can intensify doubt.


“he spoke as if he had been drunk (the night before)” would suggest a prior bout of drinking—perhaps a hypothetical hangover. context would be necessary to analyze the grammatical mood of “had been drunk.”


consider the nuances here: “he speaks as though he knows everything” vs “he speaks as though he knew everything”


while both sentences may convey annoyance at the speaker’s know-it-all tone, the first one allows for the possibility that his omniscience is genuine; it could, for example, be uttered in awe. the second, with the subjunctive clause, casts stronger doubt on his omniscience; it’s hard to hear it without frustration or negative judgment.


careless speakers and writers of english may not respect or understand the “was/were” distinction, but something is lost if we pretend it isn’t there.


from an oxford-affiliated site on using the subjunctive:

As if…, as though…, if…

After if (or as if, as though, unless) in hypotheses or comparisons:

If that were so, things would be very different.

It was as if Sally were disturbed in some way.

His voice strained as though he were walking on a wire above a pit of sharks.

The indicative may also be used, i.e. was instead of were, in all the examples above, but the subjunctive arguably conveys the hypothetical sense more forcefully.

anonymousCareless speakers and writers of English may not respect or understand the “was/were” distinction, but something is lost if we pretend it isn’t there.

As shown above.

Same capitalization problem throughout the post.

CJ

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