I saw the following sentence in Vanity Fair, and have been wondering whether 'as if she were' is a better choice than 'as if she had been'.

The Lady Blanche avoided her as if she had been an infectious disease.

This sounds as if the woman the Lady Blanched avoided was no longer similar to an infectous disease at the time of the avoidance. But it would seem to make more sense if the avoidance and the similarity to an infectious disease occurred at the same time.

What do you think?

  • The past-perfect was used so as to show that the subordinate clause's situation was modally remote: that is, she was NOT a disease. For fiction writing, writers have their own conventions, and one such convention (besides using the past-perfect like it is done here) is to use the irrealis "were" in sentences like this. This practice might also be used in formal writing to some extent--though I don't know how prevalent it is.
    – F.E.
    Jun 17, 2014 at 17:47
  • Please consider these attested examples: I felt as though the ground were giving way under my feet. He strutted, waving his hands as though he were commanding an army. Here, "were" is used instead of 'had been"
    – Apollyon
    Jun 17, 2014 at 17:57
  • And your question is? :) . . . Notice that in my comment I said that some writers sometimes use the irrealis "were" in these types of sentences. The reader understands that the situation is not-factual, and the reader is usually tuned in to that understanding. Compare your last examples to the present-tense narrative versions: "I feel as though the ground were/was giving way under my feet"; "He struts, waving his hands as though he were/was commanding an army".
    – F.E.
    Jun 17, 2014 at 19:53
  • . . . and so, you can see that the past-tense "was" in those last two examples are being used for modal remoteness, which can also be accomplished by using the irrealis "were". Those last two present-tense versions can be put into past-tense narrative mode: "I felt as though the ground were/had been giving way under my feet"; "He strutted, waving his hands as though he were/had been commanding an army".
    – F.E.
    Jun 17, 2014 at 20:03
  • Also, this older post of mine might be helpful: english.stackexchange.com/a/146382/57102
    – F.E.
    Jun 17, 2014 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


My apologies as I am new to this and am not fluent in the meta-language necessary to explain complex grammar, but for me '...as if she had been an infectious disease' doesn't work in terms of what the author is trying to convey. I agree with Apollyon's assessment of the way the sentence comes across.

For me, you need to make a distinction between an imaginary situation in the past from a present perspective (as in 'if I had been an infectious disease...') and an imaginary situation within a narrative structure in which the perspective/point of view is already in the past (as in 'The Lady Blanche avoided her as if she were an infectious disease'). In the former we are looking backwards, requiring past perfect, in the latter we are looking 'across', requiring past simple.

There is probably a much better way of putting this!


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