Quite often when I am talking over phone with some customer service representative, if they'd need to ask my name again they'd go like

What was your name

Similarly I heard my teacher asking another student, who was just about to leave the class room, did you want to stay for another English class. I don't get why is he using past tense to mean if the student wants to stay now or not. In the former situation it sound like if I had changed my name and they are asking what was my old name.

So, why do some native speakers use past tense to mean present tense?


The past form is often used tentatively, like this, to 'push the reset button' on an earlier situation or topic.

In your case, the rep is probably trained to give customers freedom to express their concerns before introducing any technical formalities. The past form acknowledges (or implies) that you already gave your name, to diminish any annoyance you may feel at having to repeat yourself or to take any 'blame' if in fact you didn't give it.

In the second case, we don't have enough context to know why the teacher used the past form: it suggests that he had gotten the impresssion earlier that the student might want to stay.

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  • 1
    Spot on. In this context, "What was your name?" really means, "What did you tell me your name was?" – J.R. Nov 8 '18 at 1:23
  • The student came over for some paper work and didn't know nothing about the English class. The teacher just wanted her to let know about the class and also give her an option to attend the class rather leaving immedeately, and she actualy stayed and attended the class. – user31782 Nov 9 '18 at 1:39

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