2

Generally speaking, what is the difference between structures like "If you [do something]" and "if you are [to do something]"? I don't see any purpose, stylistic it otherwise, to use the latter instead of the former in the sentence below. I believe I am familiar with these "formal" inversions, but I deem it irrelevant here

enter image description here

  1. In more formal styles if can be dropped and the auxiliary verb inverted.

Were you to question me about the matter, I would deny all knowledge.
Had I known that he was a journalist, I would have said nothing.

Let's step the inversion and boil the question down to this: what's the difference between these two sentences:

If you questioned me about the matter, I would deny all knowledge.

If you were to question me about the matter, I would deny all knowledge.

9
  • 1
    Your generalized examples don't match the examples in the quoted text. The text is noting these two possible forms of the same sentence: "If you were to [do something]" -> "Were you to [do something]." Are you asking about this, or about the examples you gave: "If you [do something]" -> "If you are [to do something]"? Because that's a completely different situation.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 2, 2021 at 20:45
  • I imagine the rest of this page makes it clear that it's talking about the subjunctive mood. If you use the simple present verb "are," you can't do the same trick. If you want to edit the question to ask about the difference between "If you were to ___" and "Were you to ___," the answer is that there is no difference in meaning, and in my opinion, little difference in tone. (If you're asking about the difference between "If you question me" and "if you were to question me," then there's a huge difference.) Dec 2, 2021 at 20:55
  • @juhasz I'm not asking about inversions. I'm asking about the difference between "to do something" and "to be to do something" (I know what it can mean: orders, expected or scheduled events, etc.). I don't see what it adds to the sentence here Dec 2, 2021 at 21:24
  • If you're asking about "you do something" versus "you are to something," you should remove the example from the book. That example has nothing to do with "to do something" or "are to do something." The example in the book is saying this: there are two different ways to write the same sentence - "if you were to question me..." and "were you to question me..." This is a completely different situation than "you ask me a question" and "you are to ask me a question."
    – Juhasz
    Dec 2, 2021 at 22:37
  • @juhasz ignore the inversion, it has nothing to do with my question. Inverted, but inverted, it still has a certain purpose, using "to be to do something", that evades me. That's the focus of the question Dec 2, 2021 at 23:03

2 Answers 2

2

To be to X means to plan/need/have to do X because something requires, compels, or forces it.

It doesn't mean X has been done yet.

It's often used as a polite but firm imperative, and used to talk about an action that an employer or law is requiring. Hence the formal "flavor" of the construction.

If you were to question me about the matter, I would deny all knowledge.

Speaker is communicating an assumption that the person asking a question wouldn't be doing it because the speaker wanted to, but because the speaker was required to.

Were you to question me about the matter, I would deny all knowledge.

Use subjunctive mood for extra formal flavor, or this may be normal preference for BrE.

If you questioned me about the matter, I would deny all knowledge.

No such assumption, and any idea of formality is purely because "questioning" often describes things in the context of an official or important business or legal process.

2
  • So is it the same as "if you had to [...]"? Dec 4, 2021 at 3:44
  • You may consider answering my previous question and also this. Lexico includes the following sense for "to be": "Used to hypothesize about something that might happen." What does it mean? "If you were to do something" could be simply used instead of "if you did something" with no difference in meaning of style? If so, how do you know obligation is conveyed and not that? Note it's different from "used to express obligation or necessity" you were talking about in your answer which is listed earlier in the entry Dec 7, 2021 at 18:44
0

Including are to or not in OP's context changes the meaning significantly...

1: If you go to university, you might learn quantum electrodynamics
It's possible that by going to uni, you might learn QED (but you might not go anyway)

2: If you are to go1 to university, you must learn quantum electrodynamics
Learning QED (now) is a requirement for entering uni (if you don't learn it you won't get in)


Note that OP's more formal "inversion" can only carry the first sense above...

3: Were you to go to university, you might learn quantum electrodynamics


1 You might find it easier to parse the construction If you are to [do something] after considering a "non-conditional" reference to future activity: I am to go to London tomorrow ( = I will go...).

The effect of including are to in OP's context is to change the "condition" queried by if from being a matter of whether in the future, you will go to uni, to a matter of whether at time of speaking, your "current state" is that you intend/are expected to go to uni.

2
  • But you also changed 'might' to 'must' Dec 3, 2021 at 17:39
  • I thought that might (must?! :) make things easier to understand. I could rephrase #1 to If you go to university, you must learn quantum electrodynamics. As in If you get your girlfriend pregnant, you must marry her, which is obviously not at all the same thing as If you are to get your girlfriend pregnant, you must have sex with her). Dec 3, 2021 at 17:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .