I know this sounds right:

If I were to ask you how to [verb][object], you'd say...

but I want to word it this way instead:

If the question of how to [verb][object] was asked of you, you'd say...

Is that second version above incorrect?
Or are only one of the following correct?

If the question of how to [verb][object] were asked of you, you'd say...


If the question of how to [verb][object] were to be asked of you, you'd say..."
(makes my line length longer than wanted)

  • It's enough to say if the question of how to verb + object was asked, you'd say ... – Alejandro Feb 14 '16 at 9:24
  • Great! Can I keep "was asked of you, you'd say..." – Writer out West Feb 14 '16 at 9:25
  • You're gonna have to wait for a native response, but I think it's actually ... from you. – Alejandro Feb 14 '16 at 9:29
  • Ok, thank you. Let's see what others think as well. It is a tricky one. – Writer out West Feb 14 '16 at 9:44

There are two separate issues.

First, the passive form: Ask, as a ditransitive verb, potentially has two passive forms.

You are asked the question

The question is asked of you.

Both are grammatical, but the first is much more common in speech: the second is rather literary. They both have the same meaning.

Second, the conditional. For irrealis (or counter-factual) conditionals, the traditional grammar is to use the so-called "past subjunctive" form; but in modern English, only one verb retains a distinct form for this: were as opposed to was. For every other verb, it is indistinguishable from the simple past.

So for example

If I did see him ...

is historically a different form from the simple past.

But in the case of was, the traditional form

If I were ...

is used for conterfactuals (as opposed to the simple past for non-counterfactuals, such as If I was there at the time, I didn't see anything, where the speaker may have been there at the time).

Having said all that, many speakers today never use the were form, and say if I was in all senses. But traditionalists still count that as "wrong".

So If the question were asked of you ... is perfectly grammatical, but a bit literary, and most people would say If you were asked the question ....

(I don't think many people would say If the question was asked of you ..., because the literary form was asked of you doesn't sit well with the colloquial if ... was; but some people might say it).

  • 4
    +1. With regard to literary contexts: in American English, "ask of" is used not with questions but with extraordinary deeds, with "calls to action". The range of the extraordinary extends from small favors all the way to acts of heroism. I have a favor to ask of you ... If such acts of self-sacrifice were asked of you, how would you respond? At the heroic end of the spectrum, ask of has a strident literary quality but at the shallow end of the pool, the effect is modest: it announces "I need your help" but it could be only with feeding the dog for two days while I'm out of town. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 14 '16 at 12:06
  • Fair point, @TRomano; except that if I search for "asked of" in the Corpus of Global Web-based English, and look at a random couple of pages of the US English results, about half of the citations are about questions, and the other half about duties. The proportion (of questions) does seem to be a little higher in UK English. – Colin Fine Feb 14 '16 at 15:49
  • Are you saying "If the question was asked..." is incorrect? – Peter Feb 14 '16 at 16:04
  • Thank you for all the information. I should have said this is for a book I am writing and is meant to have a literary tone. I am a native English speaker from the Midwest but now live out West. – Writer out West Feb 14 '16 at 17:41
  • 1
    @SovereignSun: the use of "would" inside an "if" clause is something which I've seen increasingly often in recent years. I would never use it myself, and in the past it would certainly have been counted "incorrect". To me it also sounds distinctly American. – Colin Fine Dec 12 '16 at 11:02

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