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?

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 1
    Spot on. In this context, "What was your name?" really means, "What did you tell me your name was?"
    – J.R.
    Nov 8, 2018 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, 2018 at 1:39
  • On first communication with a person "WHAT IS YOUR NAME?" is correct and polite, whereas on first communication "WHAT WAS YOUR NAME?" presents as rude, ignorant and assuming there was a name change at some time.
  • If the name was given, and for some reason the person requiring to refresh their knowledge of the other persons name then "WHAT WAS YOU NAME AGAIN?" is correct, rather than just 'WHAT WAS YOUR NAME?"

"WHAT IS YOUR NAME?" is present tense and you are communicating with that person NOW.

"WHAT WAS YOUR NAME?" can imply several things that happened in the past such as a name change via Marriage; an identity change in the Witness Protection Program; and sometimes foreigners who have migrated will change their name to align themselves and job prospects to their new country. There may be more reasons.

My summation of people on first contact who ask "WHAT WAS YOUR NAME?" is that they are lazy, poorly trained, have some sort of inferiority issue that precludes them speaking in the 'now' with others or maybe simply have no clue how to be polite.

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