We were discussing if the following sentence would be proper English:

I asked them if they would do me a favour. (A)

The meaning is that I am referring to a point in the past where I asked another person (group of persons, whatever) to be so nice and do me a favour of some nature.

Somebody claimed you mustn't use "if" with "would" in this fashion, but instead say:

I asked them if they do me a favour. (B)
I asked them if they did me a favour. (C)

But I think this has a different meaning, both versions (one with "do" and one with "did").

I can think of yet another option:

I asked them to do me a favour. (D)

but I suspect this has a slightly different meaning, not including the tone of the original question.

Could you bring some clarity to the matter (for the layman, please), which is correct and if the meanings of A through D correspond to the intended meaning I described (if they are correct, as the semantics of them would be undefined otherwise -- obviously).

  • 1
    Not sure what smithying has to do with anything. – tchrist May 23 '12 at 15:51
  • @tchrist: "Not sure what smithying has to do with anything." Where did I claim that, exactly? – bitmask May 23 '12 at 15:54
  • 2
    Better to titulate than never. – tchrist May 23 '12 at 15:57
  • "I asked them if they would do me a favour" implies more politeness, since there's an implied phrase in the sentence along the lines of "I asked them if they would do me a favor if I asked." It's more polite because you're asking about the possibility rather than asking for the favor itself, so they aren't put in the position of having to outright reject your request (since you haven't technically made one). – Dietrich Epp May 23 '12 at 23:03

Your options (A) and (D) are correct, while (B) and (C) are incorrect for the meaning you're trying to convey.

I asked them if they would do me a favor.

The word "would" here is correct idiomatic English. If you extract the if-clause into its own sentence you get "They will do me a favor." However, when used as a subordinate clause with if, the verb will must become would in order to agree with the past tense asked.

I asked them if they do me a favor.

This is bizarre and ungrammatical. The tenses in both clauses should agree in most situations, and in any case no English speaker would ever say this.

I asked them if they did me a favor.

This is grammatically correct, but makes little sense. The tenses between the clauses agree as they should, but having both clauses in the past tense means that you're asking if they have already done a favor for you. This is not what you want to say, I'm pretty sure.

I asked them to do me a favor.

This is semantically equivalent to the first option, but of course the syntax is completely different. Since infinitives have no tense, to do is correct here. You can use this option if you're nervous about tense agreement and modal verbs.


I asked them if they would do me a favour. (A)

Sounds just fine. It's an indirect quote of "Would you do me a favor?"

I asked them if they do me a favour. (B)

Sounds wrong. Non-parallel tenses or aspects or something.

I asked them if they did me a favour. (C)

Sounds fine, but yes a different meaning. I asked them (in the past) whether (in the past) a favor had been done by them.

I asked them to do me a favour. (D)

Sounds fine. Indirect quote of "Do me a favor." or Please can you do me a favor?"

  • I'm looking for a rule based explanation, because my gut tells me the same. But the original point that A was wrong was brought up by an English teacher, so I was a bit confused. – bitmask May 23 '12 at 16:11
  • @bitmask There is nothing at all wrong with A. – tchrist May 23 '12 at 16:25
  • @bitmask: It's hard to explicate a disagreement with someone 3 steps removed, especially not knowing what exactly is the problem. What did this English teacher say is wrong? Without that, I can't answer. If you need a rule, use what I did, convert to a direct quote and see if it works. B does not, and C gives a different meaning. – Mitch May 23 '12 at 17:56
  • The statement was pretty much "'would' never comes after 'if'". Maybe I got it wrong. – bitmask May 23 '12 at 20:10
  • @bitmask: Oh, well there's the problem, the strict 'never'. I can see that some might be rankled by 'If they would...' under some circumstances. But de facto the above example is fine...teasing out why it is different from the usual 'if they would...'...I ahven't figured that out yet. – Mitch May 23 '12 at 20:50

I suspect that whoever recommended B (which is simply ungrammatical) is thinking of I asked that they do me a favour which is correct though ponderous. Strictly speaking, A means the same as C, though in a different tense; they would go on '... and the answer was yes', where D and rephrased B would go on '...and they did so.' But in normal speech, no distinction is made.


I think your "somebody" is confusing two different constructions.

In direct conditionals, "would" is non-standard, whatever the tense. So

"If you would go, you would see him"

is not possible in (as far as I know) any standard English, though it does occur in several non-standard varieties. The standard form for this is

"If you went, you would see him".

However, this has nothing to do with the indirect question/request of your example.

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