Lesson #196: ‘As If’ vs ‘As Though’ through Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’


📙 ‘As though a rose should shut

And be a bud again.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far From The Madding Crowd (1874) 🥀

If you have been around native English speakers enjoying a casual conversation, you are likely to have heard them use the word ‘like’ often when making a comparison of some kind.

✒️ ‘The teacher assigned extra homework to be completed after the exams – like students were actually going to do it!’

✒️ ‘Are you tired? You look like you could do with a break.’

However, I would recommend that you use an alternative to ‘like’ (unless you are in informal company).

Today we are going to cover two alternatives to ‘like’: ‘as if’ and ‘as though’.

As you can tell from the quotation above (and the accompanying image of some summer roses from our garden!), I will be drawing on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 classic, Far From The Madding Crowd, which is by far my favourite Hardy novel. 🌹

📝 ‘AS IF’ VS ‘AS THOUGH’

✍️ Both of these actually have the same meaning and are interchangeable.

📙 ‘The girl, who wore no riding-habit, looked around for a moment, as if to assure herself that all humanity was out of view, then dexterously dropped backwards flat upon the pony’s back, her head over its tail, her feet against its shoulders, and her eyes to the sky.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Yet, though so plainly dressed, there was a certain rejuvenated appearance about her:— As though a rose should shut and be a bud again.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Rays of male vision seem to have a tickling effect upon virgin faces in rural districts; she brushed hers with her hand, as if Gabriel had been irritating its pink surface by actual touch, and the free air of her previous movements was reduced at the same time to a chastened phase of itself. Yet it was the man who blushed, the maid not at all.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine)

📙 “But I don’t like dwelling upon it, for my few words are my few words, and not much; though the speech of some men is rumoured abroad as though by nature formed for such.”

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine)

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📝 COMMON AND UNCOMMON USES

Generally speaking, ‘as if’ tends to be used more often (especially in spoken English) than ‘as though’, which is a little bit more formal.

..

📝 THE TWO POSSIBLE USES OF ‘AS IF’ AND ‘AS THOUGH’

Although ‘as if’ and ‘as though’ are interchangeable, both have two possible uses.

✏️ UNREAL COMPARISON

Firstly, ‘as if’/ ‘as though’ can express an unreal or unachievable comparison. For example,

📙 ‘A perception caused him to withdraw his own eyes from hers as suddenly as if he had been caught in a theft.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine)

Here Gabriel Oak (the person ‘he’ refers to) withdraws his eyes like he had been caught robbing or thieving someone. He did not actually rob anyone, he was not caught in a theft, and yet all the same he behaved like that was what happened. The ‘theft’ here is a kind of unreal comparison, and ‘as if’ is simply the conjunction that compares the reality (he withdrew his eyes from hers) with it.

Notice the verb forms that are used in this ‘unreal comparison’ type of sentence:

✍️ Past simple + ‘as if’ / ‘as though’ conjunction + past subjunctive

Here are a few more examples from Hardy’s novel, all drawn from an eventful chapter in the book describing Gabriel Oak extinguishing a raging fire.

👉 You will notice how ‘as if’ is used again and again to try to describe something metaphorically (the similarity is not real, but it is comparable):

📙 ‘Individual straws in the foreground were consumed in a creeping movement of ruddy heat, as if they were knots of red worms, and above shone imaginary fiery faces, tongues hanging from lips, glaring eyes, and other impish forms, from which at intervals sparks flew in clusters like birds from a nest.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine) (Notice: the individual straws here are not ‘knots of red worms’ – they simply look like them.)

📙 ‘Gabriel leapt over the hedge, and saw that he was not alone. The first man he came to was running about in a great hurry, as if his thoughts were several yards in advance of his body, which they could never drag on fast enough.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine) (Notice again: the man’s thoughts are not running several yards ahead of his body – it just looks like it.)

📙 ‘Oak seized the cut ends of the sheaves, as if he were going to engage in the operation of “reed-drawing,” and digging in his feet, and occasionally sticking in the stem of his sheep-crook, he clambered up the beetling face.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine) (And again: Oak is not going to begin ‘reed-drawing’ – an activity relating to sheep-rearing – because he is trying to put out a fire in a hurry. However, he is acting and looking like he would if he were going to do some ‘reed-drawing’.)

✏️ LIKELY OR PROBABLE SITUATION

📙 ‘… the host himself stood bustling about in white apron and shirt-sleeves, and looking as if he had never lived anywhere but under canvas all his life.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine)

The second usage of ‘as if’ / ‘as though’ describes how something is very likely to be related to something else. In this quotation just above, it is true that the host both looks like and has actually lived under canvas (a tent) all his life.

Here is another example of the same usage:

📙 ‘Troy had what appeared to be a carpet-bag in his hand— the same that he had brought with him. It seemed as if he were going to leave again this very night.’

– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (emphasis mine)

Again, Troy has a carpet-bag in his hand because he not only looks like he is going to leave the place that very night, but he actually is leaving.

👉 Notice how any verb form can be inserted here in this second kind of use (very likely/probable situation) – there is no specific formula as there was with the first use (unreal comparison).

This wraps up all you need to know about ‘as if’ and ‘as though’ in English. We convered

  • their similarities and differences (‘as if’ being more commonly used in spoken English),
  • their two different uses: (1) to express unreal comparison and (2) to describe a likely situation
  • and the different verb forms that might or might not be used with them (past simple + conjunction + past subjunctive for the first usage of ‘as if’ / ‘as though’).

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by Joyce E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2021)