As far as I know, when we can't remember the name of a person or when we didn't hear it properly, or even if we never learned the name of a person before, we can say "What was your name" to that person by backshifting the verb (This can be done in my native language in this question and in some other questions too. It can be done in any question where we can't exactly remember the answer of actually.). Can we do the same thing in all other kinds of questions too (this is my main question to you)? For example, can I say these sentences below?

"Where were you from?" [Can I say this in any part of the conversation (at he beginning or wherever) even when I am sure that I was never told where the person I am talking to is from?]

"Had you been to USA?" (Can I say this sentence when I sort of remember that the person I am talking to has been to USA but I am not sure? Or can I say it even when I merely wonder if he has been to USA? I mean even when I have no idea if he has been there or not, when I am sure no one ever told me he had been there or not.)

"Did you play guitar?" (I guess I can say this just like the ones above in a situation where I like remember that that person plays guitar but I am not sure. But I am not sure if this one can be said when I merely want to learn if somebody plays guitar.)

"Was your name pronounced as 'John'?" (My questions are the same on this one as the ones in the parentheses above: Can I say it either when I want to learn the pronunciation for the first time or when I can't remember it? *Context: Let's say I am asking this one of a Swedish person.)

From what my ears which are sort of used to hearing English (American English especially) tell me, English and Turkish are similar in terms of this. I think in English, just like Turkish, we can backshift any question when we feel like we knew something but we can't remember it. And also again just like Turkish, when we are sure we never knew or heard about the thing we are going to ask about, when we merely want to learn something for the first time, it is wrong to use the backshifted version except for some questions like "What was your name?" Maybe in formal contexts, all questions where we are wanting to learn something for the first time can be backshifted. I don't know.

  • These backshiftings are possible in English, but less likely when they could cause confusion. "Did you play the guitar?" can also refer to a particular point in the past (e.g., "I know there was a talent show yesterday, did you play the guitar?") so it is less likely to be used to enquire about guitar-playing ability in general. "What was your name?" is more likely to be used because people don't (often) change their names, so it's very unlikely that you're asking someone about their previous name on an earlier date. Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 15:19
  • @CanadianYankee Thank you. I asked about this on another site, and they told me that it was wrong to say "Were you Scottish?". What do you think about this? Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 18:05
  • Also, can you please give me an example context - conversation where I can say like "Did you play guitar" or "You played guitar, right?" by backshifting? Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 20:51
  • You are misusing the term backshift. It implies there was another tense to begin with. Q; Do you play guitar on weekends? A: Yes, I do. Backshifted: I asked him if he played guitar on weekends. Backshifting occurs in a context. Not loose sentences. Any question can be asked with any tense depending on context.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 17:14

1 Answer 1


There are so many variations as to how these questions could be asked, it is difficult to provide a full response. If you are simply asking these questions of someone for the first time, you could say:

"What is your name?"

"Where are you from?", but "Where were you from before you arrived here?"

"Have you been to the USA?"

"Do you play [the] guitar?" You ask this if you want to know if someone currently plays the guitar. You would ask "Did you play [the] guitar?" if you want to know if they used to do so.

"Is your name pronounced as 'John'?" (or "Do you pronounce your name 'John'?")

If you can't remember a previous answer to these questions, you can subsequently ask:

"What did you say your name was (is)?" or "What was your name?" or "What is your name again?"

"Where did you say you were from?" or "Where did you say you are from?"

"Did you say that you had been to the USA?" or "Did you say that you have been to the USA?"

"Did you say that you play [the] guitar?" if you think they said the do play. Or, "Did you say that you used to play [the] guitar?" if you think they said that they no longer play.

"Did you say that your name is pronounced as 'John'?"

  • Thanks. So, can't I say those sentences I provided? Please look at the answer of @FumbleFingers here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/3255/… Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 4:47
  • I did not mean to imply that the questions that you asked are ungrammatical, or that they could not be asked under any circumstances. There are circumstances in which your questions would be appropriate, but they are not the circumstances that you described. You mentioned 'having a conversation', which I took as meaning tha it takes place within a social setting. In this case the 'formal register' and'need to maintain distance' that Fumble Fingers wrote about would probably not apply.
    – James
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 5:38
  • If I may discuss one of your questions to highlight what I mean about context. Did you play guitar. If I meet someone socially and I want to know if they play the guitar, the appropriate question is "Do you play the guitar?".However, if that person mentions that they were in a band when they were at university, then an appropriate question might be, "Did you play the guitar?"
    – James
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 5:46
  • What if I am kind of remembering that he plays guitar, but I am not completely sure. Can't I say things like "You played guitar, right?" or "Did you play guitar"? Maybe by themselves, they don't make sense, but depending on context maybe I can say them. Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 5:54
  • I guess it is wrong to use the backshifted version right at the beginning of a conversation. But after speaking for a while, we can ask like "Where were you from?" as far as I know. I heard native speakers do that many times. I am completely sure. So, what I am asking is whether I can do this backshifting when I ask other kinds of questions too. Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 7:02

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