1. John's face changes as if he has seen this before.

Here this could any thing (an object, a map, a place, a movie, etc).

Normally when you see something and if you feel as if you have seen this before, your facial expression changes reflecting that. I wrote the above sentence to describe it. Is it grammatically correct?

I checked google, I see many sentence for "as if he has seen this before" but I don't see any sentences matching "face changes as if * has seen this before" I feel like this is valid sentence and conveys the meaning. But I'm confused since there is no match in the google. That means this sentence is wrong? How?

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    Use the possessive suffix: John's. "Facial expression" may be substituted with "countenance", if you want a literary term. – CowperKettle Aug 8 '13 at 3:36
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about writing advice – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 8 '13 at 3:53
  • @FumbleFingers not writing advise. I edited the question. Check it now. – T2E Aug 8 '13 at 4:36
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    @ T2E: Your English isn't that bad! Unless I'm much mistaken, you could have seen the John's not John error for yourself without it being pointed out. But I understand it's difficult to notice such errors when all the words are "alien" to you. As you will see from my "similar versions are used" link above, the basic usage of his face changes is relatively ordinary in fictional work, but stylistically your as if he has seen this before is a little "odd". Your face might change in surprise if you haven't seen something before, but why/how would it change if you have? – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 8 '13 at 18:13
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    @ T2E: I don't deny there might be contexts, but it would probably be better to say John's face lit up (or fell, depending on how he felt). All I'm saying is since it's only as if (not actually for real), we have to suppose we know what kind of expression John has when he "recognises having seen something before". But we don't know that, because we don't know whether it's a good or a bad thing that he recognises. In short, your sentence is grammatically valid, but a very odd/meaningless thing to say. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 9 '13 at 2:19

John's face changes as if he has seen this before.

Yes, this is grammatically correct, or at least it is something that a native speaker might say. However, it would be more common in writing, but perhaps old-fashioned, to use a pluperfect here:

John's face changes as if he had seen this before.

This is an instance of a past subjunctive. To reduce confusion, consider a similar sentence where the action in the conditional clause does not take place in the past:

John's face changes as if he was not seeing this for the first time.

The use of a past subjunctive normally expresses a counterfactual statement. It is used here even though it is likely that the statement is true, because “as if” tends to call for a counterfactual statement.

If you want to express a visible change of expression and state without ambiguity that John has seen this before, and John's response is positive, you can say

John's face lights up in recognition.

If John's reaction is negative, you might say

John frowns in recognition.

  • I don't think this is right. You wouldn't normally mix present tense changes with past perfect had seen. The thing is native speakers would rarely use present tense at all here except as a "literary device". In most spoken contexts it would be changed + had seen. But in a literary context (or sometimes informal speech using present tense to describe events in the past) it would be changes as if he's seen it before, where he's = he has. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 8 '13 at 19:54
  • @FumbleFingers Now it's gets more interesting. Now I don't know whether to use has or had. Google ngram result doesn't show any match for has but I could only search partial sentence. Here is google ngram result books.google.com/ngrams/… – T2E Aug 9 '13 at 0:56
  • @T2E The ngram was a mistake: “as if he was seen” is overwhelmed by occurrences where the main clause is in a past tense. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Aug 9 '13 at 1:05
  • @FumbleFingers I'm surprised: you wouldn't use a subjunctive past here at all? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Aug 9 '13 at 1:05
  • @ Gilles: To be honest, present tense is so unusual compared to past tense for OP's context that I'm not completely sure ("looks as if he had seen" : 10 hits in Google Books, looked as if he had seen : 168,000 hits). Plus 7 for looks as if he has seen. But the more "natural" you look as if you've seen only just edges out you look as if you'd seen, so it obviously is used – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 9 '13 at 2:41

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