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Hi literary community!

I'm writing a book and I'm stuck on this part of a sentence:

Leo DiCaprio pretended he was a doctor..

Or

Leo DiCaprio pretended he were a doctor?

I know that we are supposed to use "were" if used in hypothetical, but in this case it's all tricky to me. He wasn't a doctor, didn't study for one, but he was in fact, according to the movie Catch Me if You Can, performing duties of a doctor in one scene.

Please advise.

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  • Consider. – tchrist Apr 4 '17 at 2:26
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    It's not di Caprio who's pretending, it's the character he plays. I'd use "pretended he was" or "pretended to be." But this isn't a literary community, even though most of us are literate. – Xanne Apr 4 '17 at 2:33
  • @Xanne I don't think the actor matters, either. Frank Abagnawhatsit wasn't really a doctor but you'd still use "he pretended to be" or "pretended that he was" for him, too. The distinction is that the pretending is itself a real act, even though his status as a doctor is pretended. – lly Apr 4 '17 at 2:51
  • How about Leo DiCaprio played the character of ____ who was impersonating as a doctor – Burhan Khalid Apr 4 '17 at 5:02
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    The short answer is that the subjunctive is used in conditional statements. Typically, that means something like if. Even though di Caprio is not actually a doctor, it’s not a conditional statement. He was definitely pretending to be one. – Manngo Apr 4 '17 at 12:58
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The subjunctive is slowly disappearing from use and it isn't used with pretend here.

Leonardo DiCaprio pretended [that] he was a doctor.

or, terser and better,

He pretended to be a doctor.

He was pretending that he was a doctor, not wondering whether he could or would be or were one. That he performed the duties of a doctor is entirely irrelevant.

  • As @tchrist mentioned, there's ngram to look at and this might confuse you but those sentences are pretending that something untrue were the case, not truly pretending to be something one is not. – lly Apr 4 '17 at 2:48
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    @Ily: Right, there are some valid use cases for "pretend it were." Google Books shows a sentence from "I Am Charlotte Simmons" that starts "Even if I were to pretend it were real...," which definitely seems OK to me. – sumelic Apr 4 '17 at 2:52
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As Xanne says, go with "pretended he was" or "pretended to be." The criterion of "hypotheticality" is by no means sufficient to warrant the use of "I/he/she/it were." In modern English, these forms are only used in certain grammatical contexts, and this is not one of them.

As tchrist pointed out in a comment, the Google Ngram Viewer shows 0% usage of "pretended he were". It does show "pretended he was":

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Compare for example "They thought he was a doctor, but he wasn’t." "They thought he were a doctor" is obviously wrong, "he weren't" even more so, even though the sentence clearly indicates that his being a doctor is an entirely hypothetical scenario. Another variant: "They didn't think he was (not were) a doctor."

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    "They thought he were a doctor" doesn't seem obviously wrong to the person asking the question or he'd've known how to say it. Moreover, plenty of English dialects do still phrase it that way and it presumably is a holdover from the time when we liked the subjunctive more than we do now. That said, you're right that it will sound uneducated and provincial to talk that way if your English is good enough to be taken for native otherwise. – lly Apr 4 '17 at 2:56
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Here are the hold-over usages of subjunctive that I'm aware of in English:

"If he were a doctor, he'd know what 'pneumothorax' means." Here 'were' and 'he'd' (he would) are "past-tense" subjunctives, although they are used in a "present-tense" situation. "If he had been a doctor, he would have known what 'pneumothorax meant." Now it's in the past tense and subjunctive. The non-standard usage of 'had been' and 'have known' indicate that they are subjunctive and are happening at the same time as the indicative verb 'meant'.

"If I were you, I wouldn't touch that electrical cable." Here 'were' and 'wouldn't' are past-tense subjunctives used in a present-tense situation. "If I had been you, I wouldn't have touched that electrical cable." This is past tense subjunctive, most likely spoken by a bereaved friend of the departed at a funeral.

'Should', 'might', 'could', and 'would' can indicate subjunctivity; the latter two can also mean indicative action happening in the past, depending on context.

"We ask that you be quiet. We ask that he go home." 'Be' and 'go' are "present-tense" subjunctive verbs that indicate a hypothetical, desired state and, in the 2nd person, evolve into commands when shortened: "Be quiet!" "Go home!"

  • It's pretty unhelpful to call them 'past-tense subjunctives in a present-tense situation' and 'past tense subjunctives'. The first set simply are in the subjunctive mood's present tense. That they usually look like the verbs' past-tense forms is noteworthy but you shouldn't confuse them with the actual past-tense subjunctives. – lly Apr 4 '17 at 14:57
  • @lly: The "subjunctive mood's present tense" is usually considered to be "be". The "were" and "be" forms aren't used very similarly today, but apparently they were more analogous in the past. – sumelic Apr 4 '17 at 18:31
  • I might be clumsily comparing these two forms with the German Konjunktiv I and II (Subjunctive I and II), which look like modified versions of simple present and past tense verbs, regardless of their actual tense. Since English is a Germanic language, there are elements of similarity. – Timothy Bostick May 19 '17 at 13:20

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