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What is the difference between the meanings of the following sentences?

  1. If I were going to Rome next week, I would be trying to find accommodation.

  2. If I were going to go to Rome next week, I would be trying to find accommodation.

I'm confused here, because i can see no difference in meaning between these two sentences.

"Going to vs going to go to"

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The difference is that in the second sentence, the possibility of traveling to Rome next week sounds like a more distant, less likely hypothesis, and it reduces an ambiguity about whether the travel plans have already been decided.

Sounding less likely

In the first sentence, going to means the action of traveling to Rome, without carrying the meaning of when that action will happen. In the second sentence, going to carries only the meaning of intention or futurity, and the infinitive phrase go to carries only the meaning of traveling to Rome.

The word if, the subjunctive were, and the adverbial phrase next week clearly indicate that the speaker is considering only a possibility for future action. So, by adding going to in the second sentence, where it means only intention or futurity, you add strong emphasis to the fact that the speaker hasn't decided whether to travel to Rome. Hence you increase the feeling of uncertainty.

Plans already made vs. plans now being considered

The phrasing of the first sentence, where a gerund is combined with words that indicate that the action is in the future, can also I mean that plans have already been made. For example:

Tomorrow I am washing the dishes.

This means that a plan has already been made, in which the speaker will wash the dishes tomorrow. The present-tense verb am indicates that the speaker is talking about a plan that is currently set.

The wording of your second sentence indicates more clearly that the speaker is still considering different plans; no travel plan has yet been decided. The first sentence is compatible with either interpretation: a plan might already already have been decided, or the speaker might still be considering different plans.

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These are both unreal conditional sentences, and unreal conditionals are formed by a past tense verb form in the if-clause and a past tense modal verb in the then-clause. Thus, in unreal conditionals, the past tense form does not talk about past time, but present unreality.

The past tense form I were is used only in unreal conditional sentences.1

The two bolded instances of going to might look the same, but they are actually two different things, using two different verbs.

1 If I were going to Rome next week, I would be trying to find accommodation.

In sentence 1, were going is a past progressive form of the full verb to go. It is never pronounced gonna. The to here is the preposition that begins the prepositional phrase to Rome. The present progressive form is I am going to Rome next week.

2 If I were going to go to Rome next week, I would be trying to find accommodation.

In sentence 2, were going to is a past tense form of the semi-modal be going to. This semi-modal can be pronounced, and written informally, as gonna. It is followed by a verb in the base infinitive form: here the verb is go. This is followed by the same prepositional phrase to Rome. The present tense form is I am going to go to Rome next week.

In Sentence 1 what is not real is my going to Rome. The full verb to go is an action verb. Hence, it is an action that is unreal.

If I were going (traveling) to Rome next week (but I'm not), I would...

In Sentence 2 what is not real is my going to go to Rome. Be going to here does not express an unreal action. Here it most likely expresses an unreal intention. This is very close to

If I were intending/planning to go to Rome next week (but I'm not), I would...

Let's use a different verb to get another look.

If I were selling my bicycle, I would...

(a past progressive form of to sell) expresses an unreal action.

If I were going to sell my bicycle, I would...

(the past form of am going to using were, plus base infinitive of the full verb sell) expresses the unreal intention of selling my bicycle. In this usage, it is very close in meaning to

If I were planning/intending to sell my bicycle, I would...


Note that besides intention, the semi-modal be going to can express other things. One is inevitability:

John is going to go to hell.

Here is going to probably does not express so much the intention of John to go to hell, but the inevitability.

This inevitably can be expressed as an unreal condition:

If John were going to go to hell, the devil would have sent him an invitation by now.

When does be going to express intention and when does it express inevitability? Like just about everything: context and speaker's intent or purpose.


1 "The form were may be treated just as an alternative irrealis form of [the past tense verb] was rather than a past subjunctive" (Wikipedia). Note many bona-fide linguistics say that English has no subjunctive–or at least that English does have a subjunctive in the same manner as Latin (from which the term was probably unfortunately borrowed) has.

Geoff Pullum: "People often call the "were" of "I wish I were" subjunctive, but that term is much better used (as in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) for the construction with "be" seen in "I demand that it be done." The "were" form is often wrongly called a past subjunctive, but of course "it were done" is not a past tense of "it be done". The difference between the two is that the subjunctive construction occurs with any verb: "I demand that this cease" is a subjunctive (notice "this cease", not "this ceases"). The relic form in "I were" is only available for "be". For all other verbs you use the preterite: "I wish I went to New York more often." The Cambridge Grammar calls the "were" form the irrealis form. It is surviving robustly in expressions like "if I were you", but even there it has a universally accepted alternate "if I was you", and there is no semantic distinction there to preserve."

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    I would never call "were going" the past progressive. You need to use "subjunctive" as the past form of to be is "was" for I, not "were". "Were" is only used in the subjunctive mood for the personal pronoun "I". – user24743 May 20 '16 at 6:40
  • Excellent analysis of the difference between "what's unreal" in the two sentences! I think you've put your finger on the essence of the difference (which my answer missed). The point about inevitability is also excellent. Is there some way to clarify that the first sentence can also express inevitability without obscuring your main point? (E.g. "John is going to Hell" asserts inevitability without modal "going to".) – Ben Kovitz May 20 '16 at 6:55
  • @Rathony I do not need to use the term subjunctive. Many linguistics get along fine without saying something silly such as modern English has the subjunctive. Many teachers of Romance languages do not even bother to say that English has the subjunctive. Also, were is a regular past tense verb form, not some kind of special form. Moreover, it is used for both first person and third person singular (see the quote in next comment, from Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language): – Alan Carmack May 20 '16 at 9:17
  • Quote: "The ‘past’ subjunctive is now often called the were-subjunctive, because this is the only form in which there is a distinction from the indicative, and then only in the first- and third-person singular: If I were you … as opposed to If I was you. It is used with present and future (not past) reference in various hypothetical clauses, including condition: If only I were young again; If he were asked, he might help; This feels as if it were wool; I wish she were here now; Suppose this were discovered; I'd rather it were concealed."–*Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language* – Alan Carmack May 20 '16 at 9:19
  • Quote: John Lawler:A useful and concise conception of the English subjunctive mood is that it is a mythical beast, like the fairies at the bottom of the garden in summer. English has no subjunctive mood, though Latin did and many European languages (Spanish, German, French, etc) do have a subjunctive mood. But English teachers talk about it all the time, and often have faith that it exists; just like fairies...." (my emphases) – Alan Carmack May 20 '16 at 9:28
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In the first sentence, you specify a future time (next week) for "going to Rome".

In the second, using "going to" you mean it is a future action, however not specified when.

  • Question edited My typo: next week – yubraj May 20 '16 at 1:04
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Fisrt Question: I believe both have the exact same meaning. However, although sentence 2 is also correct, it sounds redundant, once "going to" expresses both the future and the action of going.

Second Question: It has the same meaning as: "If she had thought about it, she wouldn't have done that." The use of "were to" emphasizes the conditional... Also "were to + past participle" is only used along with "If"

Hope it helps :)

  • Question has been edited please review, i have corrected my typo – yubraj May 20 '16 at 1:05
  • Furthermore, Question has been added too – yubraj May 20 '16 at 1:16
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To be going to X = will X.

I will go to the park.

I am going to go to the park.

I don't know what he will do.

I don't know what he is going to do.

To be going to X can have more of a mood of "planning" than will X.

However:

Will you stop by the store? (This is more of an indirect imperative or request.)

Are you going to stop by the store? (This is simply asking if you were planning to go to the store.)

But:

Will you be stopping by the store? (Same as Are you going to stop by the store?)

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