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Imagine you're talking to your best friend and she's done something for you and you want to make a casual, light-hearted remark about it...

You owe your friend a favour but since she's your best friend this quid pro quo system is out of equation. So you decide to say that if she wasn't your best friend you'd have owed her. What is the best way to say this?

Is "owed" the word to use here?

Can one say, "were you not my friend I'd have owed you one"?

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  • I think saying "I owe you" is perfectly appropriate. Why focus on owed (past tense) and not owe?
    – wavery
    Apr 24, 2021 at 6:26
  • @wavery because it's a hypothetical situation, so "I would owe you".
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 24, 2021 at 7:38

2 Answers 2

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This is a hypothetical situation, so it is normal to backshift the tense of verbs other than the be verb. You don't need to backshift quite as far back: It would be sufficient to backshift "I will owe you" to "I would owe you", rather going one step further to present perfect "I would have owed you".

In "Were you not my friend", the verb is placed before the subject: this is called anastrophe or inversion. Inversion is often used to indicate a question: in this case, it is used to indicate a conditional. This type of inversion is generally only used in literary writing.

Using this inversion means that a conjunction is not required to connect the two clauses. With no conjunction, it might be clearer to separate the two clauses with a comma:

I'd owe you, were you not my friend.

In casual, lighthearted English, you would not use inversion, and you would have to used the conjunction if. The conjunction naturally separates the two clauses in the usual way, so no comma is required:

I would owe you if you weren't my friend.

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  • @JavaLatte thank you. Your answer is really helpful. However, a few doubts, I still have. Is it incorrect to say, "I'd have owed you if....."? I'm implying a hypothetical conditional through this statement and this sentence construct feels somewhat correct in my gut but feelings can be deceiving. I'd much appreciate your help with this.
    – John1085
    Apr 24, 2021 at 17:17
  • It you were speaking about future perfect debt "I will have owed you" you could backshift it to present perfect "I would have owed you". I don't think that works in this case.
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 24, 2021 at 23:39
  • thank you very much.
    – John1085
    Apr 25, 2021 at 2:32
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The "casual, lighthearted" intent is different from the formal use of conditionals and the "were subjunctive" (and as @JavaLatte says "anastrophe").

Moreover, telling someone "I'm not going to do something in return because you are a friend." seems odd to me. The proper attitude should be "I'd do the same for you."

Perhaps this is cultural. It is grammatically correct to say

I'd owe you one if you weren't my friend.

In a culture in which this is can be understood you can remove the conclusion (since your friend understands the context)

Thanks! If you weren't my friend...

But in my culture I think I'd be more likely to say

Thanks! You're a great friend. I owe you one.

You indicate that this is intended ironically: Irony is hard in a foreign language. It is, perhaps would be more clear if the "debt" was ironically small:

I'm so glad it was you that did this for me.

Why's that now?

'Cause if it'd been anyone else, I'd feel I like I'd have to buy them a pint to say thanks, and I'm totally skint!

There are lots of "flags" here that the speaker is not serious: the very casual style "'cause". The small offer of repayment "a pint". The exaggeration "totally skint".

This kind of dialogue is more "natural", but it can't be prepared. You can't learn it from a book.

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  • I understand what you mean and I think we share the same culture. Its actually an ironical sentence. By saying that I'd owe you if you weren't my friend I'm implying that it's not a quid pro quo deal with us..... I'd do everything in my power to be of help without expecting any favour in return and it applies both ways...... the feeling behind the sentence is informal, light-hearted comedy and irony..... its just a way of showing gratitude indirectly. Hope you understand.
    – John1085
    Apr 24, 2021 at 17:14
  • Irony is very hard to do in a foreign language and in text. The ironic intent isn't clear in the question, but I'll try to edit something in.
    – James K
    Apr 24, 2021 at 17:22
  • @ James K maybe I wasn't able to correctly convey about the situation in which I mean to say this. My bad. Let me try to explain.... my friend has done something for me. Now we're in a bar having fun, playing pool and this is the setting in which I seek to say what I intend to say, to her. Hope this helps.
    – John1085
    Apr 24, 2021 at 17:27
  • See my edit. But especially see the last sentence "you can't prepare this"
    – James K
    Apr 24, 2021 at 17:33

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