What is the difference in the meanings of the following sentences:

  1. If you asked me, I would say no.

  2. If you were to ask me, I would say no.

I know that these sentences express imagination of the speaker. But they look similar to me. I don't know which one is correct to use depending on the different context. Which sentence expresses more possibility of your asking ? I think that 'were to' could also express the meaning 'by chance' or happen to' for example:
1."If you were to ask me (If you happened to ask me or by chance) I would say no."
Am I correct here ?

My question is about difference between these two sentences and which one is correct to use depending on different context. I'm expecting an helpfull answer. Thank you very much in advance.

  • I feel the second sentence puts more emphasis on the fact that the speaker really insists on his refusing. It's something like someone says, "even if I knew where he was, I wouldn't tell you." Here the speaker sees that it's not very likely that the person he's talking to is going to ask him something, but he implies "even if you intended to ask me, you should know I would say 'No'." – Yuri May 10 '16 at 23:16
  • If you were to ask me means: if you happened to ask me. – Lambie May 22 '16 at 14:45
  • But no expert is saying so – yubraj May 23 '16 at 0:25

Both of these questions would normally be taken as hypothetical conditionals, along the same lines as:

If I were rich, I would buy a fast car.

For hypothetical conditionals, we should really use the subjunctive- were.

For most verbs, there is no subjunctive, so we use the simple past- see Type 2 Conditionals. Not many native English speakers actually know what a subjunctive is, so the simple past was is growing in usage for hypothetical conditionals.

Here is a very similar question on EL&U.

  • 1
    I don't see how this answer addresses the difference in the two sentences the OP asks about. – Alan Carmack May 22 '16 at 14:29
  • @AlanCormack: agreed. The question has been edited considerably since I answered this question three weeks ago. – JavaLatte May 22 '16 at 16:51
  • @AlanCormack: ...and I answered a very similar question from the same OP yesterday. ell.stackexchange.com/questions/90570/… – JavaLatte May 22 '16 at 17:01

The exact difference in meaning can vary depending on context, but here is the most likely difference.

First sentence

The first sentence offers the speaker's opinion: "no". It's a polite manner of speaking. Here are some other ways to say the same thing:

If you ask me, I would say no.

If you ask me, no.

I would say no.

In my opinion, no.

No. [This is blunt. It could be heard as impolite, depending on the context.]

In other words, "If you ask me" and "If you asked me" are a common idiom for introducing the speaker's opinion. It avoids suggesting that other opinions couldn't reasonably differ. "I would say" is another idiom for softening a statement of the speaker's opinion.

By the way, the "if you ask me" idiom has a special rhythm: the syllables of "ask me" are extended longer than usual and given equal stress and equal time (or even double time for "me"). When using "I would say" to introduce an opinion, the "I" is stressed and usually lengthened, emphasizing that what follows is only the speaker's opinion.

For expressing an opinion, "If you ask me" is most common in the simple present tense. For that reason, the past-tense form, "If you asked me," is also a way to reinforce that the speaker is talking about a hypothesis and not offering a personal opinion:

If you asked me if you could stay up until 2:00 a.m., I would say no, because I'm only your baby-sitter and I can't give you that kind of permission. If you ask your father, he might say yes.

Here, the topic is asking permission. The tenses shift in the second sentence, because the first sentence describes a generality and the second sentence suggests something the listener could do in the future.

The "my opinion" idiom can be put into the past tense to suggest a change of opinion, or to emphasize that the speaker's opinion has not changed:

If you asked me in 1993, "What level of confidence do you have that this economic plan is going to work," I would say very, very high. [Bill Clinton, telling how his economic plan worked better than he expected.]

The word would in the consequence suggests that the speaker frequently stated this opinion in 1993. It can also suggest, "See? I was right." This exploits the sense of would meaning habitual activity—even though here it's not describing activity, it's suggesting constancy of opinion. If the speaker were describing a change of opinion between the past and now, he would likely reinforce that interpretation by saying would have said instead of would say. As usual, there is no rule, there are only a variety of familiar expressions that people call upon to favor one interpretation or another, as explained in more detail in a similar question.

Second sentence

The second sentence emphasizes that asking the speaker's opinion is itself a hypothetical scenario, which might influence the result.

If you were to ask me if I would buy Febreze-brand dog food, I would say no. But if I saw it in the grocery store and they were out of everything else, I might buy it.

In other words, moving ask into a subjunctive clause makes the asking a hypothesis, and indicates that what follows would is a consequence of that hypothesis. The speaker is not merely offering an opinion, but making a claim about the difference between being asked about his behavior and his real behavior. The second sentence reinforces the difference between his likely false self-report and and his likely real behavior by using a weaker way of indicating that a verb is hypothetical: putting it into the past tense.

Another way to accomplish the same thing is to use intonation:

If you ask me if I would buy Febreze-brand dog food, I would say no. But if I saw it in the grocery store, I might buy it.

Of course, you could also say "If you were to ask me, I would say no" as a longer, extra-gentle form of the idiom for gently offering an opinion.


There is very very very very little difference in meaning between the two sentences as usually used by native speakers.

They both represent standard constructions to talk about an unreal condition. Both sentences use a past tense in the if-clause and would in the main part of the sentence: this is the standard paradigm or pattern for talking about an unreal situation (also known as irrealis). This talking about an unreal situation is about as remote as you can get from reality. However, were to could possibly add an extra smidgen of remoteness.

The were to ask version contains the modal-like am to/is to/are to/was to/were to construction (those are the only forms and it cannot be used as be to). One function of modals is to provide remoteness to a sentence. Would you carry out the garbage? is more remote than Will you carry out the garbage? The difference is largely that of being less direct, in the sense of politeness or deference.

Another thing that provides remoteness is the past tense. I wanted to ask you a question is more remote than I want to ask you a question, again showing politeness or deference, being less direct.

Were to is both modal-like and in the past tense. Thus, there is the possibility that the were to version adds some deference or politeness. But this little bit is barely perceptible since we are already in the world of the unreal which is the strongest form of remoteness.

The meaning if you happened to ask me also shows a certain remoteness, but not necessarily equal to that of if you were to ask me. First of all, only in rare circumstance can someone "happen to ask" a question to someone in the sense of ask by chance or by accident; they would have to accidentally ask someone. Second the sense of if you happened to ask me can be that of coyness (another thing that is based on on indirectness), and if you were to ask me could also be used in a coyful way, but then so could if you asked me.

As far as "intention," this would be expressed by if you were going to ask me. See my answer to your question “Going to” vs. “going to go to”. So, usually the two sentences in your question are interchangeable, except the were to version can possibly seem less abrupt. This is probably explained by were to adding an ever so small amount of politeness to the statement. But since we are already talking about an unreal situation (which carries a very large sense of remoteness from reality), this is so small as to be barely distinguishable.

Last the were to version can be inverted, whereas the simple past tense version cannot:

Were you to ask me, I would say no.


*Asked me you, I would say no.

is ungrammatical in standard English, which is what the asterisk (*) designates before it.

The inverted version does not alter the meaning.


If you asked me, I would say no.

"Asked" here pertains to a past action.

If you were to ask me, I would say no.

This sentence points out an event that could possibly happen in the future. "were to ask" -> person A (being spoken to) have not yet done the action yet to person B (speaker)

  • 1
    I'm afraid to say that these answers hasn't yet clearified the differences between this two sentences properly, answers isn't so clear – yubraj Apr 29 '16 at 13:12
  • Asked does not refer to "past action" if the sentence expresses a (present) unreal condition. – Alan Carmack May 21 '16 at 16:17

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