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Can somebody please help me understand the whole timeline thing when it comes to choosing verb tenses?

Today, I asked a friend if he wanted anything because I was going to Starbucks for lunch. He said no, so I came back empty handed, but he was like, "I didn't know you were going to go to Starbucks for real!"

I replied with the following:

I wouldn't have asked if i weren't planning on going.

But it feels like I should have said one of the following:

I wouldn't have asked if I didn't plan on going.

I wouldn't have asked if i wasn't planning on going.

I wouldn't have asked if i hadn't planned on going.

How would a native speaker decide to put these "events" on a timeline and choose verb tenses?

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  • You should have replied,"Well next time you'll know better."
    – Jim
    Mar 19, 2013 at 7:16
  • Given the type of question you’ve asked, I think you might be interested in our sister site for English Learners. ELL tends to be a better fit for these sorts of questions than ELU does.
    – tchrist
    Mar 20, 2013 at 15:08

4 Answers 4

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Using the conjunction "if" established the subjunctive mood, something contingent upon something else happening, basic cause and effect, if-this-then-this type of scenario. For example, I would not have asked IF I weren't planning on going.

Once the subjunctive mood is established, the proper verb usage is past subjunctive singular 1st person, "were."

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You used the past tense ("weren't planning on going") because it's not true: you are planning on going. We use the past tense to describe counterfactuals.

My favourite way to illustrate this is by asking about your lottery plans:

A: What will you do if you win the lottery?

B: I haven't bought a ticket.

A: Okay, but what would you do if you won the lottery?

wasn't planning has the same meaning as weren't planning -- the difference is a matter of whether you use a grammatical feature called the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood is slowly fading out of English and these days it is entirely optional.

didn't plan suggests that your plan to visit Starbucks has been a long-standing feature in your life. It doesn't seem appropriate in this situation.

hadn't planned is using a different sense of the word plan. You are referring to the act of planning (He spent a long time planning his strategy.) rather than having a plan in mind (I plan to visit you this weekend.) hadn't planned suggests that the act of planning was over and done with before you asked the question. Again, it doesn't seem appropriate in this situation.

Speakers of different dialects will probably disagree about some of these interpretations. For example, I think didn't plan would be common in some parts of the US.

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  • So, do you think "I wouldn't have asked if i wasn't planning on going" is the correct one? It seems like the person below is saying what I said to my friend is correct, but I'm not sure if all of my four sentences should work.
    – Pato
    Mar 19, 2013 at 12:37
  • @Pato Okay. I'll expand my answer to cover all bases.
    – Pitarou
    Mar 20, 2013 at 10:25
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All the actions are over, so everything happened in the past. So you went to Starbuck's and also you had planned that before going. Then, you asked your friend if he wanted a coffee . So you want to "report" your friend what had happened before you went. That has nothing to do with the subjunctive mood. So you could have answered like the Americans do. "Sorry, I wouldn't have told you if I didn't plan (or for me better if I hadn't planned)

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You are mistaken in thinking the verb of your utterance was the wrong tense. Rather, it was plural when it should have been singular.

It would be either "we weren't planning on going," or "I wasn't planning on going." All of your alternate phrases are the correct tense and the correct count and any would suffice.

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  • An if construction allows what might be called the "subjunctive mood", for which "If I were..." is correct. Mar 20, 2013 at 8:15

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