Which one do you ask of someone when your register wants to be polite?

"I had a question:..." or "I have a question:..."

I heard a long time ago that the use of the past simple tense in asking a favor or a question of someone you respect is more appropriate than the present simple tense. Does it only apply in formal occasions, such as in interviews of people held in high esteem, or can it also apply when you ask, say, your co-worker something?

  • I'm not aware that the tense makes a difference in politeness. I would think it could cause confusion rather than any nuance being recognized. "I had a question" suggests that you no longer do. – fixer1234 Aug 3 '18 at 3:44

It's true that a more oblique or indirect expression can sound more polite. In approximate order of increasing politeness/deference, we might list

Answer me this:


I would ask you this:

I have a question:

I had a question:

I might have a question:

Would you be willing to answer a question?

I wonder if you might possibly be willing to consider a question?

And so on. Some might consider "I had a question:" a gentler and more polite expression than "I have a question:" because it implies that the question hasn't been constantly on your mind; it arose once and is incidental.

When communicating in 2018, however, "I have a question:" is almost always going to be appropriate in business and personal communication and is generally the simplest way to proceed. It's suitably deferential and polite because you're submitting a query to the other person and yielding the floor for them to answer (i.e., you're giving them the opportunity to speak). It can sound obsequious or overly deferential or wordily self-indulgent to use a longer and more indirect expression such as the last few in the list above.

  • Thanks Chemomechanics for the explanation. Can you explain also why we say, "I was wondering if you could..." instead of "I'm wondering if you could..." when we ask someone a favor or a boss something? Is it also a matter of not having been constantly on your mind? – Bahram Aug 6 '18 at 2:38
  • Yes, that's a possible interpretation of this polite form; see here and here, for example. Sometimes this is called using the "remote" form. – Chemomechanics Aug 7 '18 at 5:41

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