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I'm reading Harry Potter. I found a difference in chapter 6 between the American version and the British version

British Version:

Half terrified, half furious, they acted as though any chair with Harry in it was empty.

American version:

Half terrified, half furious, they acted as though any chair with Harry in it were empty.

I have three questions:

  1. What the difference between was and were?
  2. Do they both use subjunctive?
  3. If they use subjunctive, why don't they use past perfect tense, given that the thing happened in the past. That's:

Half terrified, half furious, they acted as though any chair with Harry in it had been empty.

My grammar book gives an example:

If the landslide had occurred a few seconds later, the bus could have passed through safely.

Here's another example in Grammar in Use (unit 118):

When I told them my plan, they looked at me as though I was mad.

May I write?

When I told them my plan, they looked at me as though I had been mad.

Here is Harry Potter context:

Harry’s last month with the Dursleys wasn’t fun. True, Dudley was now so scared of Harry he wouldn’t stay in the same room, while Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon didn’t shut Harry in his cupboard, force him to do anything, or shout at him — in fact, they didn’t speak to him at all. Half terrified, half furious, they acted as though any chair with Harry in it were empty. Although this was an improvement in many ways, it did become a bit depressing after a while.

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  • Harry Potter...there are at least seven books. Can you please give us the title?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 6 at 19:21
  • The first one: Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone.
    – Jesse
    Jan 7 at 2:48

1 Answer 1

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The use of the "subjunctive" were after as though is variable in modern use: in this case, I prefer the original "was" to the American editor's "were", but both are possible. (I think my preference is because it is not a true counterfactual: in "they acted as if the chair was/were empty", there is not actually a counterfactual world proposed in which the chair was empty - they are simply choosing to pretend that. I'm not entirely sure why I prefer it though).

As for the past perfect: we use a past perfect when we are looking back from a later time in the past and not otherwise. There is no such circumstance here.

In your example from the grammar book, "the bus could have passed" is not a past perfect: it's the so-called "perfect infinitive" (better, "past infinitive") used with the modal "could" - so effectively it is the past - not the past perfect - of "could pass".

In your second example, they looked at me as if I had been mad is perfectly grammatical, but means "as if I had been mad at some earlier time". It doesn't mean "as if I was mad at the time when they looked at me".

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    And the Dursleys acted as though Harry's chair was empty at the time, not had been empty earlier. Jan 6 at 17:51
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    I think it's truly appalling that American publishers take it upon themselves to "bowlderize / regularize" (whichever suits your perspective) perfectly good English like that. If I can put up with my spellchecker insisting on -ize in this comment, Americans should be able to deal with more modern phrasing. It's like they're locked down against any further linguistic change since Webster! Jan 6 at 18:43
  • Careful, @FumbleFingers, your jingoism is showing.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 6 at 19:45
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    Yeah, FF is right. Those stupid American editors And I am calling them that and I am American. I wish people would stop using that term subjunctive.
    – Lambie
    Jan 6 at 23:07
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    @FumbleFingers: I find If I had have known malformed and completely ungrammatical, so If I'd have known must be expanded to If I would have known. That is not in my dialect, but it is at least syntactically analysable.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 7 at 14:59

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