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Question:

Can the past tense used after as if indicate an individual (non-habitual), or in other words, isolated action that is unreal, or might be true?


Let me explain the question:

I have seen the past tense used after as if often conveys a habitual action or a condition or a state that is unreal or that might be true.

For example, knowing something is a state,

(1) She laughed at the question as if she knew how to solve it.

And when describing an individual (non-habitual) action in the past which is hypothetical or might be true, I feel like using past perfect is more natural.

For example, solving something is an action happening only at a particular timing, so I use past perfect in the below sentence (could simple past be used in this case?).

(2) She laughed at the question as if she had solved it.

And I feel weird about the sentence below and I don't know why:

(3) She laughed at the question as if she solved it.

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  • That's not really a hypothetical—it's just a comparative. We don't know from the sentence alone if she actually did solve it or not. (Exactly the same sentence could be used if she had.) All we know is that she's laughing as if she did. In these particular sentences, you can replace as if with like. I'll also add that it's not explicitly describing a non-habitual action either. – Jason Bassford Jun 29 '20 at 5:01
  • So, you are suggesting that the last one "She laughed at the question as if she solved it" can mean a past hypothetical thing or a possible thing in the past? And the use of past tense or past perfect after "as if" doesn't have anything to do with whether the action is a habitual thing or a state? How about this example: (1) "my son cried as if someone punched him." Is it ok to use the past tense after "as if" like this to indicate "punching him" is a hypothetical or somewhat possible thing in the past? Sorry, many questions here. – vincentlin Jun 29 '20 at 6:56
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    I'm saying that the sentence itself doesn't communicate if the thing was hypothetical or real, or habitual or an isolated incident. You can make assumptions from context, but the words alone are neutral. It's a comparative sentence that equates one thing in the past with the past-tense of another thing (which might or might not have happened once or many times.) – Jason Bassford Jun 29 '20 at 12:26
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+50

In every one of your constructions, the phrase following "as if" is not a hypothetical. It is a comparison being used as an adjective. Most of the time I would say it doesn't even imply that the phrase might be true, instead implying that it is strictly not true, however if the perspective of the narrator is one of limited knowledge (e.g. first person or third-person limited), then it is possible that the writer used that phrase because the narrator does not know whether she knows the answer or not. I would not expect that sentence construction if that were the case, but it is possible.

In my experience "as if" in that sense is typically used to indicate that the thing after is not true, but is a good comparison/descriptor for the situation. As Jason Bassford said in his comment, you can replace "as if" with "like" in those examples and the sentence has the same meaning. I could say "The skater glided across the ice as if carried by an angel," and the sentence in no way implies that the skater was actually carried by an angel. Instead, "as if carried by an angel" is a comparison used as an adjective to describe the gracefulness with which the skater skated. The sentence "The skater glided across the ice like she was carried by an angel" has the same meaning and works just as well.

To put it simply: The construction "as if [phrase]" is used to compare the action before the "as if" to the phrase after. It does not imply the habitualness of the phrase and only sometimes implies truthfulness. If the narrator is 3rd-person omniscient, it is a fact that the phrase after "as if" is untrue and is merely being used for comparison. If the narrator has a limited perspective, the phrase is still being used primarily for comparison, but may be true (however in most cases I suspect it is not). Either way, it is best to think of the construction "as if [phrase]" as an adjective-phrase describing the verb-phrase that preceded it.

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  • Since the "as if" structure is mostly used to describe one thing with another, does that mean the tenses like simple past or past perfect merely show the order of things happening? For example, "the skater glided across the ice as if she was carried by an angel" means that these two things happened almost at the same time in the past. Although being carried by an angel was a fictional past thing, but it's still in the past, right? How about "she laughed at the question as if she solved it"? Can the "solved it" happen slightly earlier than "laughed at"? Or past perfect is needed? – vincentlin Jul 1 '20 at 9:08
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    I think in modern spoken English most people would say "the skater glid across the ice as if she was carried by an angel", however if you were in a formal written context you might well say "as if she were carried by an angel", which is the subjunctive way of doing it. Using 'was' here is really a 'modern implied subjunctive' where it does not convey a sense of time - it's not behaving as an imperfect verb, but as a subjunctive one. You can also say "as if carried by an angel". In the second example you do need past perfect "as if she had solved it", placing it first in time. – fred2 Jul 4 '20 at 2:01
  • ps i thought 'glid' was entirely standard British English for past tense of 'glide' (cf glide, ride, glid, rid). Apparently it isn't and I am no longer certain of anything in life. – fred2 Jul 4 '20 at 2:13
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    @vincentin In your example past tense happens to make sense, and the verbs 'look' past. But one could also say "If I told you a funny joke, would you laugh?" In this case, 'told' is referring to an action that can only take place in the future, but the verb still takes the past form. The sense of time is from context, not the verb form. – fred2 Jul 8 '20 at 1:23
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    @fred2 Thank you for bringing up the use of subjunctive in conditional sentences. It reminds me that I have already learned to use the past subjunctive in a present time despite its simple past form. This is a very helpful answer. – vincentlin Jul 8 '20 at 7:07

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