An article about the msnbc political show with Chris Hayes is titled :

Let's pretend we had a functional Congress.

The way I read this title is that it says that we are to pretend that we have a functional Congress now, as opposed in the past. Hypothetical past tense is used with "suppose" and I guess that "Let's suppose we had a functional Congress" would be as acceptable if not preferred to "Let's suppose we have a functional Congress", but what about the use of "pretend" and "imagine" with the past verb form the same way?

In this sentence I'd understand that either pretend, suppose or imagine would imply that we don't have a functional Congress, but for the sake of argument we are imagining a situation in which we have. By using any of these verbs in this sentence the inference would be that the fact of the matter is different, and the situation we are imagining, supposing or pretending to exist is counterfactual. "Had" in this sentence thus refers to current state of affairs and not to the Congress in the past, that is, "had" is used to convey a hypothetical idea and not to place the situation in the past.

I understand that unlike suppose, verbs pretend and imagine are not normally followed by hypothetical past tense verb, but I find examples such as the example I cited or with "imagine":

Imagine if we had the McCarthy era right now.

Imagine we had a studio right now.

where the meanings of the three verbs seem to overlap, and I understand that the past tense verb following them can be rephrased as "we are imagining a situation in which something is true or is happening now" as opposed to imagining a situation that occurred in the past.

  • 1
    What does your dictionary tell you? Jan 29, 2014 at 8:05
  • 1
    Let's see how you understand the words pretend, imagine and suppose. Accordingly, we can help you understand why pretend was preferred here over the others. Please edit the question.
    – Kris
    Jan 29, 2014 at 8:13
  • I've edited my question Kris, I hope it's more clear now. Jan 29, 2014 at 8:46

1 Answer 1


You are right that there can be some overlap in how these verbs can be used.

imagine means per google's handy definition:

form a mental image or concept of. OR suppose or assume.

It's best to think of those two definitions as somewhat continuous. In other words, you are forming a counterfactual image.

suppose per google means

assume that something is the case on the basis of evidence or probability but without proof or certain knowledge.

For suppose, the emphasis is to take this as a counterfactual assumption in your argument.

pretend per google means

speak and act so as to make it appear that something is the case when in fact it is not. OR lay claim to (a quality or title).

While these two senses are not identical, both involve a false counterfactual, e.g. he's pretending to be the king can refer either to child's play or to a usurper. Thus to pretend differs in that pretending always involves a counterfactual assumption one believes to false.

So the article's title is stating not only let us think as if this were so but also that this is farcical to imagine. That it would only be a child's delusion to believe this could become the case in any short manner of time. (Probably for Chris Hayes, that would be early January 2015 after the next election were it to go the way he would prefer).

  • Thank you very much for the thorough answer virmaior. "Let's pretend we had.." then refers to the disfunctionality of Congress now and not some past situation in which Congress was disfunctional? Do I understand it right then that the same sentence with the verb "suppose" would be somewhat more neutral, not carrying the overtone of child's delusion that we have with "pretend" when we refer to having a functional Congress? And also, how do you feel about the examples with the verb "imagine" I cited? Would the rephrase with "suppose" also be a close to the original meaning? Jan 29, 2014 at 9:41
  • @TotoKalvera pretend refers to the current disfunction by negatively comparing it with an alternative that is not real. Suppose would be neutral (at least as to the wording). E.g. suppose McCain were president. For the imagine sentences you offered, if you change them to suppose, you would then need to indicate where you are going with those counterfactuals. Imagine tends to imply that we can see the problem just by thinking about the image. So for the McCarty example, we are supposed to imagine a witchhunt...
    – virmaior
    Jan 29, 2014 at 10:06
  • Thank you very much again virmaior. Now I need to get it through my head a bit :) Jan 29, 2014 at 10:31
  • Strictly, the sense pretend as "lay claim to" can cover a valid claim too. This rare in modern usage, but worth considering if one really wants to understand the precise distinctions.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 28, 2014 at 11:32

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