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"I'll always remember this rule as if I had just learned it"

Do you consider this sentence grammatically correct? The main clause refers to the future, so I guess that the Past Simple would convey the same meaning and would at the same time be grammatical. Nonetheless, the choice of the appropriate tense is problematic here. Which one would you go for, and why?

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possible duplicate of "If I knew you're coming I wouldn't have come" –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '12 at 14:50
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In formal speech and writing, counterfactual clauses beginning with as if and as though take imperfect subjunctive, which means the were form in the case of to be, the only verb in English specifically marked for that tense. This the same tense you use with wish. For example,

  • It looked as if it were already done.
  • I wish it were done already.
  • She dressed herself up as though she were a little princess.
  • She wishes she were a little princess.
  • He orders me about as if I were his wife. (but I’m not)
  • He wishes I were his wife, but I’m not.

For other verbs, you just use the pluperfect there by using had learned, as you have done.

  • He talks about Rome as though he had been there himself. (but he hasn’t)

There is some distinction to me made between whether the hypothetical is in the past or the present, leading to a simple past versus pluperfect=past perfect distinction:

  • He acts as though he hadn’t eaten a decent meal for a month. (subjunctive about the past, so pluperfect/past perfect)

  • He acts as though he ate a decent meal right before today’s race. (subjunctive about the present, so simple past)

When you’re talking something that the speaker supposes to be true, there’s no marked subjunctive in the present. It works like like then.

  • He looks as if he knows the answer.
  • He looks like he knows the answer.

As those examples show, although originally as if/though could only introduce counterfactuals, it no longer inevitably does so. Also, in informal speech, some of these niceties are no longer always observed. The alt.usage.english Subjunctive FAQ has more about all this.

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Your past/present hypothetical sentence examples don't look quite right to me. I don't understand the "looks/looked" part, shouldn't the "past" one be "looked" and the present one be "looks"? Also in the "present" one you have "he hadn't a decent meal", did you want "had" in there? –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 19 '12 at 13:17
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In some ways better, but I don't think I'd say "he acts as though he hadn't", I think "hasn't" is the correct tense, I feel it should agree with "acts"; In short, "acts" makes it subjunctive about the present IMO. So acts->acted or else hadn't->hasn't. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 19 '12 at 14:54
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I'm having trouble parsing your first sentence at "which means the were from in the case of to be". –  MετάEd Jan 19 '12 at 15:09
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The main distinction between the two types of (what tchrist calls) Subjunctive are that one type is built on the present root, uses the infinitive form of the verb (be, see, walk, go), and is hypothetical in nature. Patrick Henry's If this be treason is this form; it mostly occurs in That-clause complements after certain verbs. It's important that he be here (speaking of a future event) is contrasted with It's important that he is here (speaking of the present). –  John Lawler Jan 19 '12 at 17:29
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The other type that he discusses here is the Counterfactual; it's not just hypothetical, it's known to be false. This form is based on the past root (were, saw, walked, went), and is not supposed to be inflected for 3rd person singular (no was), though it often is, because people can't tell the Subjunctive from the Past except in one type of sentence with one verb, so most people simply use the Past. This is less formal, but perfectly acceptable in speech. Consulty your editor about writing. –  John Lawler Jan 19 '12 at 17:34
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I think it is correct. The act of remembering is definitely related to something that happened in the past. Here, the subject is saying that he would continue to remember something so clearly that he must have learned it just now (still in the past).

IMO, it may sound better if said I always remember..

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So it turns out that in this case the future simple in the main clause can precede the past perfect in the adverbial clause.. grammatically it seems a bit strange to me... –  Desert Jan 19 '12 at 12:49
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It's certainly grammatically correct. In the if clause, the simple past would not typically indicate past time, but would usually indicate a hypothetical or counterfactual statement. You want to indicate both counterfactuality and past time, so you need to "double up" on the past marking. The past perfect allows you to do so.

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I might have misunderstood your question but I think you are trying to convey a meaning something as in:

whenever I meet you I feel it is the first time [we meet]

if so, the sentence could be something like this:

I will always remember this rule like / as if I am just learning it.

As I said, I am not sure... it steel needs confirmation.

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