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In English we often add "as it were" to indicate that a phrase is not to be taken literally; for example:

He's flown from the nest, as it were.

... would indicate that a boy has left his parent's house, via the "flown from the nest" idiom. But, why does "as it were" clarify that this is an idiom?

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Judging from J.R.'s answer it can be read as "as if [his parent's house] (it) was [a nest]". –  bitmask Apr 9 '12 at 10:33
    
@bitmask or indeed "as if the house were a nest." –  phoog Apr 9 '12 at 23:53
    
Idiom? More like a metaphore... –  Anonymous Apr 10 '12 at 6:27
    
@phoog: I known you shouldn't ask sub-questions in comments; But isn't the house here 3rd person singular? So I thought I'd to use "was" instead of "were". –  bitmask Apr 10 '12 at 12:23
    
@bitmask: I've already given you the answer - that it's the subjunctive mood. –  Anonymous Apr 10 '12 at 12:36
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4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Interesting thought: that as it were might be an idiom, used to emphasize that something else in the sentence is also an idiom.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines as it were thusly:

as it were :
as if it were so; in a manner of speaking

Wordnik lists these synonyms:

  • so to speak
  • in a way
  • in a manner of speaking
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It's an example of English subjunctive mood (one of the irrealis moods).

This particular example is a set phrase (relic from an older form of the language where it was much more common) where subjunctive needs to be employed.

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+1 for the only answer to mention subjunctive mood –  phoog Apr 9 '12 at 23:54
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It is used, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘as a parenthetic phrase . . . to indicate that a word or statement is perhaps not formally exact though practically right’. It’s very old, being first recorded around 1200.

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"As it were..." indicates that the mood of the sentence or clause is subjunctive, viz. a counter-factual or improbable hypothetical is being provisionally taken as true in the sentence.

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