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I was reading a novel called Pilgrim and on page 85, I stumbled upon the following:

It was as though the little cage of the elevator was a miniature stage—and its operator a stage manager.

In such a situation, why isn't were used instead of was? It's a hypothetical situation and contrary to fact (the elevator isn't a stage), so the subjunctive mood should be used, right?

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  • A bit late, but I've popped in an answer, which you may find thought-provoking. – BillJ Feb 17 '16 at 10:57
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You are correct that this is where those who use the past subjunctive would use it. But many people don't use it, or not always, and use the simple past instead. That is probably the case here. Fowler recommends the past subjective.

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    More often with "if" than with "though": books.google.com/ngrams/… – TRomano Feb 16 '16 at 22:33
  • @TimRomano: Yes, well, the proportions are roughly 1:6.5 and 1:4.5, respectively, so the subjunctive is dominant in either construction from Ngrams. Whatever that means. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 16 '16 at 23:24
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It all boils down to style.

Preterite "was" does actually imply that the situation was hypothetical, i.e. contrary to fact. Although it’s probably obligatory here ("is" would be questionable) by virtue of the matrix clause being in the preterite, it is regarded as a modal preterite (the kind with a modal rather than temporal meaning).

While it’s true that "was" is traditionally stigmatised in constructions like this, with many speakers feeling that "were" is stylistically preferable, I don’t think it’s semantically essential here, and hence it’s a free choice with style being the deciding factor.

Incidentally, I much prefer the term 'irrealis mood' to describe this "were". Subjunctive is a kind of construction, not mood, and the term 'past subjunctive' is quite ill-named.

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