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Last night while asking a question on ELL, I came up with another question. I had written this in my post:

I wanted to know if there is a word or phrase in English for this kind of friendship.

Then I thought since the tense of the second part of my sentence is present, I should change wanted to want.

I googled these terms and I found two different ideas about using past form (wanted) instead of present form (want).

One insists on tense agreement:

  • Want - for now, Wanted for past time. Both are correct. You need to use them in a context so that we can see. (reference)

Another says "wanted to" is more polite:

  • Both are correct, but we use wanted to show more politeness, especially if your addressee has a higher status than you or is a person that you respect. (reference)

And also this one about "I am/was wondering":

While technically the three phrases differ in tense, they all have the same meaning. I'd suspect that "I was wondering" is used most often, followed by "I wonder". "I am wondering" would probably be reserved for cases where you're really perplexed because it suggests the wonder continued over a longer period of time.

Since there are different ideas about this, I'm a little confused. My question is if we can use "I wanted to know (I was wondering)" instead of "I want to know (I am wondering)".

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“I wanted to know (I was wondering)” is an example of being indirect for politeness. Just as you said, if you are talking to a respected person, or a stranger, this is an appropriate way to speak or write. Some people say it is too indirect and an obsolete way to speak, but this is not universal.

“I would like to know” is another way to convey politeness without using the past tense.

I am wondering” is perfectly acceptable in today’s American English as a way to begin asking a question, even to a respected person.

I want to know” or “I need to know” is very direct— it’s grammatically correct but it may not be socially correct. It would be appropriate speaking to a close friend, or in writing if there is not a person being addressed. (“I want to know if the universe is expanding.”)

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