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Past tense for politeness

March 30, 2009

Hello again,

As we know many international business people use English as a lingua franca among other non-native speakers. They may never or rarely experience English in a native-speaking environment. Such was the experience of two people I have taught recently, who, although highly experienced in attending international meetings ...

...and conferences conducted in English, had never before visited an English-speaking country.

They applied the same qualities of intelligence and curiosity that helped them succeed in business to improving their English. Let us call one of them Elena: Elena set off for a day’s shopping and beauty treatment in London. She came back pleased with her purchases and her sleek new hairstyle. She also came back with some questions for me. Why, she wanted to know, did people use the past tense when they were not talking about the past?

As soon as she provided some examples, I realised what she meant. In shops, assistants asked the following questions: what were you looking for?/what did you want/what size did you want?/did you need any help? Elena was puzzled, surely the correct English would be: what are you looking for?/what do you want?/what size are you?/do you need any help?

To be honest I find this an affected and irritating manner of speaking but Elena was perceptive in noticing it. The past tense is used in these circumstances not to refer to a point in time but to indicate politeness. The issue is mentioned in New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, Eli Hinkel & Sandra Fotos (Eds.) (2002) (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates ISBN 0-8058-3955-0), and the editors point out that the use of the past increases the distance between the speaker and the hearer, thus increasing the politeness level.

The same device confronted Elena at the hairdresser’s, where the receptionist asked: What was your name? Elena was puzzled: her name was and still is Elena X. Again, it’s a formula that indicates politeness to the client. I think it might be related to a device that has become old-fashioned. As the question “what’s your name?” seems too direct, receptionists often used reported speech: “what did you say your name was?” Here the tense shift is entirely in keeping with the rules for reported speech. However, the tendency towards ever briefer forms, has encouraged the shorter form “what was your name?”

For teachers, politeness formulae are traditionally related to modal verbs, but among native speakers, the past tense is commonly used too. It is not, however, used among non-native speakers as far as I can tell.

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  1. Rick Peltier Says:

    I think this past tense politeness refers to British and other strongly influenced British cultures. This is NOT true in America. Americans are a very direct people and come right to the point. Unfortunately Native English speakers in America have a very poor understanding of grammar because of the severe decline in our educational system and the extreme influence of media.
    As an American I am very saddened by this decay of a language (English) that can be very specific and informative when used correctly.

  1. Irene (Ayen) Says:

    Thank you for sharing this article. I am teaching Business Courses and Mathematics in English in one of the Aeronautical Engineering universities in China. I was preparing my lesson for my Business Oral English course when I decided to check my emails. You gave me an idea to discuss this topic to my class and after the discussion I will let my students do a role-playing using the Past Tense for Politeness. Oftentimes, real-life experience are really good sources of lessons to teach. Great article! Thanks again.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:


    I had to think about this. This was an informative article, but I am wondering how people are going to teach this use of English when most people in the world are taught by non-native speakers or poorly trained teachers. I don't believe that this can be taught out of context, so no wonder it is a huge problem. Generally speaking, if non-native speakers of English are not speaking at a college level or a high school level, they may have a lot of trouble understanding this.
    Once again, another good article, Brenda. Keep it up.

  1. Garry HUBBLE Says:

    Greetings from Australia.

    These references to the past tense when speaking in the present may actually be a form of short hand, and not necessarily a simple case of bad English.

    "What was your name?" and "What size were you?" can be seen as abbreviations of "What did you say your name is/was?" and "What size did you say you were (looking for)?" or similar.

    My name was- and still is- Garry. I was a size 36, but that was a while ago now. Now I'm closer to a 42!


    Somewhat silly if the person didn't reveal their name or size in the first place, but this can be viewed as a polite way of the sales person to get the customer to reveal said information.

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