17 July 2006

Oh, as if!

At the SCBWI New England conference last spring, I picked up a reading copy of The Door to Time, by "Ulysses Moore" (a corporate pseudonym for a book copyrighted by Edizioni Piemme S.p.A., with "Text by Pierdomenico Baccalario"). Hey, it was free, I was in a conference mood. This is not a recommendation.

Sampling a few pages when I had no mind to finish the book got me thinking about a writing challenge I've also noticed in manuscripts lately. The seven uncrowded pages of Chapter 1 of The Door to Time, as translated from the Italian, contain these sentence gems:

She blinked and stared, touching her fingers to her lips as if she was not yet sure that she could believe her eyes.

The house was enclosed by the blue of the sea and sky as if it were about to be swallowed up by nature herself.

She brushed her hand along the walls of Argo Manor as if to reassure herself that it was real, that this wasn't all some fantastic dream.

Yes, that was the word, thought Mrs. Covenant. Character, as if it were a living thing instead of a mere house of stone and wood.

In other places, it was scarred by scrapes and deep gashes. As if--could it be?--someone had once taken an ax to it in a fit of rage.
Chapter 2 breaks this pattern, but only by substituting "though" for "if":
It was as though there was some sort of challenge between them.

When they'd faced each other for the first time, it was as though Argo Manor had whispered to him, "Not everything is at it seems. Come discover my secret, Jason!"
Some of those uses of "as if/though" are clearly similes, proposing a comparison of two things that aren't really the same. The house is not truly whispering to Jason, it's not a living thing, it's not being swallowed by the sea.

But in other uses of the phrase, the author/translator team is explaining what characters are thinking or have done--skipping the challenge to show and instead telling us straight out what we can't see for sure in the current scene. Someone did take an ax to that door. There is some sort of challenge between the twins. Mrs. Covenant isn't sure she can believe what she sees.

So "as if/though" seems to have two opposing implications:
  • that the statement which follows is simply a metaphor, not literally true.
  • that the statement which follows is literally true, not simply a metaphor.
Add to that the sarcastic use of "As if!" popularized by the character Cher in Clueless, and it seems impossible to know what an author means by writing "as if..." unless the meaning is already so clear from context that the phrase is unnecessary to begin with.

Yet grammarians still frown on using "like..." as a conjunction to indicate undoubted similarity, not mere metaphor. It's as if we writers are trapped in room with no way out. Or perhaps it's like we're faced with a conundrum that has no obvious solution.

No comments: