Two students this past week happened to write by chance the same expression in their essays, and it brought to my attention a grammatical construction that can be difficult to understand at first sight. The question before us is whether the verb in this locution is correct: as if I was not there.
Let’s begin by recognizing that these six words comprise a clause, that is, a group of words with a subject and verb (I was), and that this is a subordinate clause, because it does not succeed in communicating a complete and rounded thought. Clauses are either independent or subordinate, and often begin with a conjunction which explicitly tells the reader how to identify the thought that follows: an independent clause begins with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, however, therefore are some examples), and a subordinate clause begins with a subordinating conjunction (when, because, if, although among many others). Clauses do not have to begin overtly with a conjunction, but when they do, as in the example we’re considering here, let’s take the help that’s given us.
So if we focus next on how this expression begins, we see not only one subordinating conjunction, but two: as if. These two conjunctions happen to work together, producing what is called a conjunctive phrase, so we are best served practically by not dissecting it any further than that. The two words as if work, then, as one subordinating conjunction, and they have a quite specific function: to introduce a thought that is not fact but supposition, something we are asked to assume for the moment, to consider as true while in fact it is not, to hypothesize, to imagine. So if we place the clause we’re analyzing in a sentence like this: it was as if I was not there, the writer is asking us to imagine a situation in which he was not present when in fact he was. In grammatical terms, he is asking us to think about a circumstance contrary to fact.
With this category of contrary to fact, we can come one step closer to an answer whether the verb was in the expression is correct. Verbs have what are called properties, attributes that define them as they are used in a sentence. Tense is one property we are all familiar with—whether action happens in the present, past, or future, and voice is another—whether the subject is acting or acted upon. Yet another verbal property, though a less familiar one, is mood, and a verb in English can be formed in one of three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Each mood has a defined function. A verb is said to be in the indicative mood when we are stating (or inquiring after) fact, in the imperative when we are directly commanding someone, and in the subjunctive when a statement can only be said to be likely or possible to some degree, or even downright unreal.
This last use of the subjunctive mood, of course, is the one directly at issue in our example. We have seen that the conjunctive phrase as if always introduces a clause that is understood to be contrary to fact; that is its sole function. If we combine this observation now with the further understanding that verbs expressing contrary-to-fact notions must be in the subjunctive, the only question that remains for us is whether the verb was is the subjunctive mood of the verb. And, as it happens, it is not. Was is the indicative form, and were is the subjunctive form, of the verb to be, and so we should correct the statement to as if I were not there—no matter how loudly our ear might protest.
It is true that the subjunctive mood is not used as widely as it once was in English, but it is not true that is has disappeared entirely. Standard English still requires it outright in certain circumstances, and a statement contrary to fact is one such place, even at this late date.