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On a Q&A site in Japan, I read an expression that as if comes from as (would be the case) if.

  1. Are both about the same thing?

  2. Is this claim historically true?

  3. If so, what does "as though" come from?

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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted
  1. Yes, they are about identical in meaning.

  2. Style books treat it as if it came from as would be the case if, or as it would be if, so treating it as an elliptical clause seems like a good approach. In the history of the language, it has come to be treated as if it were, and its use and meaning seem to have adapted to this hypothesis, regardless of whether it is true. See my notes at the bottom for a more complex hypothesis.

  3. Similarly, as though is supposed to have come from as it would be though, where though had a (now archaic) meaning close to if. The shortening is probably analogous to that in as (it would be) if. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it so:

Though 4: In more or less weakened or modified sense, often nearly coinciding with if, but usually retaining some notion of opposition.

Sense 4b describes as though but adds nothing of use.


I believe as if to be very old, possibly having existed in Proto-Germanic, because Dutch has alsof with the same meaning, and German als ob.

The conjunction as could be used to mean as if in English, at least between 1100 and 1800, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (but possibly in Old English too). An example:

1800 Coleridge Wallenstein i. v, He looks as he had seen a ghost.

In Middle Dutch, and possibly also in Middle English or Old English, of/if could be added to subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns in what seems to be a somewhat arbitrary fashion. This is still possible in some dialects of Dutch, as in vertel mij wat of hij doet, [tell me what if he does], "tell me what he does". It can even be placed before a conjunction/pronoun, as in ik zie niet of dat hij daar is, [I see not if that he there is], "I don't see if he is there". Note that Dutch als normally introduces a condition here.

My hypothesis is that if could somehow be used in a similar way in other Germanic languages, like English, and that this resulted in something similar to modern as if / alsof / als ob already in Proto-Germanic. But I cannot prove it. It could also be a convergent development.

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+1 The als + Konjunktiv is common in German: "als wär's ein Stück von mir". In English it was already archaic when Coleridge used it (he emulates Shakespeare), but it survives today in the fossil "as it were". The "as would be the case if" is explanatory only and has no historical ground. –  StoneyB May 18 '13 at 11:34
    
@StoneyB: Right, that is a good example (cf. Dutch als het ware, which use of as is now equally impossible outside this expression). –  Cerberus May 18 '13 at 15:01
    
@Cerberus: Thank you very much. I wondered why if combined with as has that meaning and didn't know about the style books' treatment about it. The treatment, however, is a hypothesis, isn't it? I read your hypothesis with great interest. Since as is the reduced form of also, I am interested in similarity between also and Dutch and German als. Also if, Dutch of and German ob. The as used to mean as if seems to be the conjunction like in he looks like he died. Although dictionaries say that it is wrong to use like as a conjunction, we can see the ones here and there. [To be continued] –  kerochan May 19 '13 at 8:03
    
@Cerberus: It seems to me that the as is transformed into like and coming back to life. This is the first time I have known that though often nearly coincided with if. On the Wiktionary I find this example: We shall be not sorry though the man die tonight. Your answer satisfies me a lot. –  kerochan May 19 '13 at 8:04
    
@StoneyB: Thank you for your supplement that the "as would be the case if" is explanatory only. Since the "as if" doesn't come from the "as would be the case if" I look upon the "as (would be the case) if" as an approach to understand the "as if." –  kerochan May 19 '13 at 8:27
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