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Why do people say "I wanted to" instead of "I want to" when referring to a future event, as in "Tony wanted me to go out with him tomorrow night," instead of "Tony wants me to go out with him tomorrow night"? Is this some form of subjunctive?

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3 Answers 3

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Both can be used. The verb tense is tied to Tony's desire, not to the future event.

For example:

Tony wanted me to go out with him tomorrow night [but he changed his mind and doesn't want me to anymore].

Tony wants me to go out with him tomorrow night [and I'm looking forward to it].

Also, wanted is fine, even if the desire is still there:

Tony wanted me to go out with him tomorrow night [and he still does].

Note, too, that emphasis can play a role:

Tony wanted me to go out with him tomorrow night [and not you].


If the tense actually were tied to the temporal nature of the event, then the only possible construction we could use would be:

Tony will want me to go out with him tomorrow night.

But that's certainly not required.


As to why people choose one verb form over the other (when both can be used), it can just be a matter of personal preference.

But outside of any context, I would say that you wouldn't normally just use the past tense. If somebody came up to me and said, "Somebody wanted to ask you out tomorrow," I would look at them blankly for a second and then say, "And . . . ?"

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In that sentence, the event happening in the future is expressed by "to go out with him tomorrow night", where the verb go is in the infinitive form. The past-tense verb wanted describes what Tony felt (or what Tony expressed feeling). It isn't referring to a future event.

You can see this if you consider that it makes sense to add onto the sentence like this:

"Tony wanted me to go out with him tomorrow night, but then he changed his mind."

In this sentence, it's clear that wanted and changed both describe past events (or past states).

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All the examples above for wanted anticipate a choice or exception: "Tony wanted me to go out with him tomorrow night ["but" he changed his mind," and "Tony wanted me to go out with him tomorrow night ["and" not you]". However, while want could anticipate a response, it is best understood as an expressed desire. For example, "I want to apologize" expressed a need for the expression. However, "I wanted to apologize" leaves room for"but," "but was afraid of your response," etc.

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