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I stared at him to see if he were just a cartoon character.

or

I stared at him to see if he was just a cartoon character.

The intended meaning of the two sentences above are that due to him (his behavior) that the writer is (I am) staring at, that is, in the writer's imagination, they are imagining because of his absurd statements prior, that he is cartoonish. The writer is being sarcastic, because they know that he is not actually an animated cartoon, but rather he is just acting like one.

I'm confused about whether it should be was or were, however (I'm a native English speaker) my intuition tells me it should be was and another person is telling me that it should be the subjunctive were.

Any help gladly welcomed!

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    If here is a synonym of whether. There's nothing conditional about it. Use was. – Arm the good guys in America Dec 19 '16 at 2:00
  • Thanks Clare. The speaker is in a situation with an actual human (him, in this case, along with others, though I don't think that it matters that there are others present in addition to him), so the speaker clearly knows that he is not a literally a cartoon, but what they're implying is that his behavior is such that they are sarcastically 'staring at him' to see if he might be a cartoon (even though they know he is not). Does that change anything? – likethesky Dec 19 '16 at 2:04
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    Everything you describe is talking is in the realm of the real. The speaker is sarcastically "not sure" the human is a human, so use was. – Arm the good guys in America Dec 19 '16 at 2:11
  • Thanks again. I believe you make clear that it's all in the realm of the real, regardless of whether it's imagined or not. In other words, they were really imagining, it's not a thought experiment where they were imagining that they could have imagined that. I've updated my question to clarify it, I believe! – likethesky Dec 19 '16 at 2:15
  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/a/6699/77227 I'm reluctant to recommend reading that whole page, since I think some of the answers are wrong, but that particular answer seems correct to me. – herisson Dec 19 '16 at 2:46
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I stared at him to see if he was just a cartoon character.

The sentence above has a clause which looks like a conditional adjunct:

  • if he was just a cartoon character

If this was indeed a conditional antecedent, then we could use either was or were here, assuming that the conditional was a so-called subjunctive conditional.

However, the if-string above is not part of a conditional construction in the Original Poster's sentence. It is an interrogative clause. We can apply a simple test here, which is to replace the word if with the interrogative subordinator whether. If the sentence is still grammatical and means the same thing, then we know that this is an interrogative clause and not a conditional adjunct:

I stared at him to see whether he was just a cartoon character.

The sentence above means the same thing as the Original Poster's example sentence, so we can be confident that the string involved is an interrogative clause. Because this is a straightforward interrogative clause, there is no possibility of using irrealis were here.

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  • Thank you. My intuition seems correct. I'll use was! Also, because this passes the "substitute whether for if" test, then we both (a) know that it cannot be irrealis were, nor (b) can it be a subjunctive either, because it's an interrogative. Is my summary part (b) correct as well? In general does irrealis always (or only) apply to subjunctive? Thanks again! – likethesky Dec 20 '16 at 6:39
  • Also, is the preference (necessity) for was the same in (North) American English as in British English? Again, was sounds more correct to me, but I want to give the person insisting this was a subjunctive case and hence should be were a fair shake! Grazie mille! – likethesky Dec 20 '16 at 6:52
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    @likethesky That's right. And, yes, it is the same in US English too! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 20 '16 at 8:47
  • Is it always a subjunctive/irrealis when saying as if, e.g., these are interrogatives--and should use was/wasn't: I wondered if she was planning and If she was to marry, a man would rule and these are subjunctives (as well as irrealis)--and should use were/weren't: he wouldn't talk to her directly, but would speak about her as if she weren’t there, I felt as if I were a goldfish trying to escape, It was as if I were drawn to wandering around; & no as if: how, if I were to die, all of that would be gone? Did I get all of those correct? The subjunctives seem most tricky. – likethesky Dec 22 '16 at 1:37
  • Happy to take this to a wiki discussion page instead, if that's more appropriate; I had one more example arise, I started speculating if it were possible that my anger would cause ... using your substitution test, I believe that this one is an interrogative, so it should not use were, but instead was, meaning that I started speculating if it was possible that my anger would cause is the correct construction. Thanks again! – likethesky Dec 22 '16 at 2:22

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