Here are two sentences and I'd like to know which is common or you would more likely choose.

He looked as if he was a beggar.

I'm not sure whether he was a beggar or not, but seeing as his clothes being worn out, it seems that he was a beggar.

He looked as if he had been a beggar.

It implies that he was probably not a beggar. He could actually be my boss or he brought quite a large amount of money with him. I couldn't understand why he was dressing like that even though he was not a beggar.

Am I right to think this way? The 2nd one is quite complex to use because it implies quit a lot. Is the 2nd sentence common enough?

2 Answers 2


Both of your versions are unlikely to come up in normal speech. What you would probably say is,

He looks like a beggar.

If, as you imply, you're describing someone you met some time in the past (not just earlier today, or a day or so ago):

He looked like a beggar.

Or, more likely,

Based on the way he looked, I thought he was a beggar.

If it appears that he has given up begging,

The way he looked made me think he used to be a beggar.

Use to once meant "in the habit or custom of" but has become archaic, so that only the past tense form used to is still in common use. If you want to be more precise,

The way he looked made me think he was once a beggar.

The way you wrote it,

He looked as if he was a beggar.

This implies that you looked at him some time in the past (even just 5 minutes ago) and thought he might be a beggar, or he might not.

He looked as if he had been a beggar.

This implies that sometime in the past, he might have been a beggar, but clearly, he isn't a beggar anymore. That's the real difference between your sentences.

If you want to emphasize the ambiguity (not knowing if he was a beggar or not), try this:

His worn out clothes gave me the impression that he was a beggar.

The verb gave sets the time in the past. You might have laid eyes on him 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, but it has already happened. Worn out clothes gives your listener an image that explains your state of mind. It explains why you thought he was a beggar.


Personally, I wouldn't choose either. The phrase 'as if' is normally reserved for hyperbolic hypotheticals rather than more ordinary ones - eg: "He was laughing so hard it looked as if he was choking on a piece of steak." While grammatically correct, both of your examples have a somewhat forced (unidiomatic) construction as well as being somewhat ambiguous with regard to past/past perfect state distinctions.

I would put things more simply as:

He looked like a beggar.

This is less ambiguous with regard to time and tense (It remains ambiguous as to actual knowledge of his true condition versus appearance). If however, you do wish to emphasize a distinction between past and past perfect states (I can't really imagine why in this instance, but in other practical examples, it might be more relevant), then some of the following constructions are more idiomatic:

He looked like he used to beg.

He looked like he had previously been a beggar.

This last is similar to your second option, but still just a little clumsy, I'd prefer:

He looked like a retired beggar.

  • Was ready to upvote until I hit retired. :-)
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 1, 2015 at 13:34
  • Sorry, it was for OP. deleting it. Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 8:11

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