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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter II. Syntax

CONDITIONALS



THESE, which cost the schoolboy at his Latin and Greek some weary hours, need not detain us long. The reader passes lightly and unconsciously in his own language over mixtures that might have caused him searchings of heart in a dead one.

But there is one corrupt and meaningless form, apparently gaining ground, that calls for protest. When a clause begins with as if, it must be remembered that there is an ellipse. I treat her as tenderly as if she were my daughter would be in full I treat her as tenderly as I should if she were, &c. If this is forgotten, there is danger in some sentences, though not in this one, of using a present indicative in the place where the verb were stands. So:

We will not appear like fools in this matter, and as if we have no authority over our own daughter.—Richardson.


This may be accounted for, but not justified, as an attempt to express what should be merely implied, our actual possession of authority.

As if the fruit or the flower not only depends on a root as one of the conditions among others of its development, but is itself actually the root.—Morley.


This is absolutely indefensible so far as is is concerned; depends has the same motive as have in the Richardson.

But this looks as if he has included the original 30,000 men.—Times.

There have been rumours lately, as if the present state of the nation may seem to this species of agitators a favourable period for recommencing their intrigues.—Scott.


This is a place where as if should not have been used at all. If it is used, the verb should be seemed, not may seem, the full form being as there would be (rumours). Read suggesting that for as if, and seems for may seem.

General Linevitch reports that the army is concentrating as if it intends to make a stand.—Times.


A mixture between it apparently intends and as if it intended.

As if the same end may not, and must not, be compassed, according to its circumstances, by a great diversity of ways.—Burke.


May should be might. As if it may not is made to do the work of as if it might not, as of course it may.

The same rule applies to as though.

The use of true subjunctive forms (if he be, though it happen) in conditional sentences is for various reasons not recommended. These forms, with the single exception of were, are perishing so rapidly that an experienced word-actuary 1 puts their expectation of life at one generation. As a matter of style, they should be avoided, being certain to give a pretentious air when handled by any one except the skilful and practised writers who need no advice from us. And as a matter of grammar, the instinct for using subjunctives rightly is dying with the subjunctive, so that even the still surviving were is often used where it is completely wrong. So

It would be advisable to wait for fuller details before making any attempt to appraise the significance of the raid from the military point of view, if, indeed, the whole expedition were not planned with an eye to effect.—Times.


Here the last clause means though perhaps it was only planned with an eye to effect (and therefore has no military significance). But if followed by were not necessarily means that it certainly is. The mistake here results in making the clause look as if it were the protasis to It would be advisable, with which it has in fact nothing whatever to do; it is a note on the words military significance. Write was for were.

...and who, taking my offered hand, bade me 'Good morning'—nightfall though it were.—Times.


The sentence describes a meeting with a person who knew hardly any English; he said good morning, though it was nightfall. A single example may be added of the intrusion of were for was in a sentence that is not conditional.

Dr. Chalmers was a believer in an Establishment as he conceived an Establishment should be. Whether such an Establishment were possible or not it is not for me now to discuss.—Lord Rosebery.


Were, however, is often right and almost necessary: other subjunctives are never necessary, often dangerous, and in most writers unpleasantly formal. The tiro had much better eschew them.


Note
Dr. Henry Bradley, The Making of English, p 53. [back]


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