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What is the difference between following sentences:

  • The children seemed tired
  • The children seemed as if they were tired.

Does the second sentence indicate an imaginary situation?

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They do not differ significantly in meaning.

The relevant meaning of seem is this one from the Oxford English Dictionary:

  1. With noun, adj., or phr. as complement: to appear to be, to be apparently (what is expressed by the complement).

Under this meaning there are three distinct submeanings. The first is the simple case, corresponding to your first example. The second suggests usages involving the perceiver being brought in following "to," like "the children seemed to me ..." The third corresponds to your second example:

c. Followed by †as, as if, as though.

There's no suggestion of a difference of meaning. Indeed, for both usages, they are understood to say that the children appear to be tired. In either case the appearance could deviate from the fact of whether they are tired.

Furthermore adding "as if" does not indicate an imaginary situation, since as a conjunction the phrase often means (via Wiktionary):

As though; in a manner suggesting.

In the form "seemed as if," the usage is redundant (pleonastic) but nonetheless idiomatic: the children appear tired; they appear in a manner suggesting they are tired. While it would be tempting to read the phrase with the second meaning of "as if" ("in mimicry of" - the children act as if they are tired, but they are mimicking tiredness), that would be an error, since it doesn't catch the idiomatic interpretation of "seemed as if" captured in the dictionary entry for seem.

So the only question is a stylistic one: which do you like more in a given situation? Are you being concise, or is there something you value in redundancy that makes your expression harder to miss?

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    In other words, 'as if' literally introduces a hypothetical/imaginary situation, but when used with 'seem', is mostly pleonastic. 'Seem' is also weakly proposing a similar but distinct situation, but is as weak as the 'as if'. This renders both versions as ways to say 'I think it looks like X'. (I'm just adding to what you're saying, feel free to edit or not as you see fit). – Mitch Jan 17 at 17:07
  • Also, 'as if', all by itself, is used more literally as an interjection or short rejoinder to mean that one does not believe what someone has just said. – Mitch Jan 17 at 17:09
  • Thank you so much for your detailed answer. Actually I am trying to find out how to understand whether the sentence indicates that one does not believe what someone has just said – Selin Jan 17 at 17:10
  • @Selin the 'as if' sentence only has the tiniest of smidgen's of surprise but not disbelief. Any slightest disbelief would be a quick inference though. – Mitch Jan 17 at 17:16
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    @Selin Your grammar teachers are not wrong. It's just not as black and white as a hard rule. Or rather, the strength depends a lot on context. "The old man could barely pick up the small box, as if it were filled with the heaviest lead". (note the subjunctive (which is not common nowadays)). But in any case, that is intended to be hypothetical. But in your sentence, with 'seem', it doesn't really add much. – Mitch Jan 17 at 18:30

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