I initially addressed this topic a few years ago in Student Stumper 35. However, some recent questions opened the can back up, and out came some worms that I couldn’t ignore. Not having clear answers to grammar questions makes me squirm in my seat!
QUESTION: Can I use the present tense after as if and as though?
ANSWER: Yes. Many grammar presentations tend to focus on untrue statements that require use of the subjunctive, but the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English confirms the use of the present tense by including both the simple present and present perfect in the list of examples. Sticking in the actual time frame makes an as if/as though statement sound true or likely, not contrary to fact. Here are some of my own examples:
- It looks as if things are winding down. (They likely are coming to an end.)
- You look as if you haven’t been sleeping well. (You truly look tired.)
- He looked as though he wasn’t paying attention at all. (And in fact he wasn’t.)
- She talked as if she didn’t really want to tell the whole truth. (And she likely didn’t.)
QUESTION: So is there only a shift of verb forms in untrue statements with as if/as though?
ANSWER: We only use the subjunctive in as if/as though statements contrary to fact, but use of the simple past seems to vary. The examples in Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary don’t really make the distinction between true and untrue statements. Why? I think in everyday spoken English, people don’t use the subjunctive consistently, especially in informal conversation. It’s similar to conditional statements with if. Rules state we should say, “If I were her…,” but some say, “If I was her…” and many listeners don’t seem to mind. Some also use the simple past in conditionals where grammar books say the past perfect should be used.
In the LDOCE there’s an example about a woman exploding. Of course people don’t literally explode in anger, but according to the grammar rule, she looked as if she were about to explode is just a colorful description. But she looked as if she was about to explode reminds us of the scene from Willy Wonka when the girl Violet swells like a giant blueberry and becomes alarmingly big. And yet the example in the dictionary uses was going to explode. Did the woman explode? No. It’s just an instance where the speaker felt it was natural to use was instead of the subjunctive were.
In contrast, I think use of the modal would and the infinitive after as if/as though is consistent across registers:
- It seemed as if she would never stop talking! (Of course, she did eventually, but she talked for a long time.)
- They looked at me as if to say, “Stop.” (It was like saying the actual word.)
QUESTION: What about like? Can we use it the same way?
ANSWER: Like can have the same meaning, but it’s more informal. Also, we can use nouns directly after like, but we can’t do that with as if/as though. Dictionary examples show both true and untrue statements with like. Here are my own examples:
- You’re acting like a child! (Compare: You’re acting as if you were five years old.)
- It seems like you’re angry at me. (Compare: It seems as if you’re angry at me.)
- She looked like she was about to explode. (Note: To me it sounds odd to use were here.)
- It sounded like he didn’t want to leave. (To me, this means he really didn’t want to leave.)
- It looked like he hadn’t prepared for the test. (I see this as a true or likely situation.)
What are you thoughts on as if, as though, and like? Feel free to post a comment.