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What is the difference in meaning between the 2 sentences below in each set, and in what scenario do we typically use each one?

1st Set:

He is the guy I was telling you about.

He was the guy I was telling you about.

2nd Set:

I was wondering what the difference is between the 2 cars.

I was wondering what the difference was between the 2 cars.

I find the subject of is and was confusing since some people tend to just use contractions when texting. For example, "he's or hes" (to mean he is or he was). Also, some people tend to speak very quickly making it difficult for me to clearly distinguish what the person is saying.

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  • I don't know people who'd say he's as a contraction of he was, only of he is or he has. Jan 23, 2021 at 8:41
  • Sorry. What I meant to say was it is sometimes hard to distinguish between he was and he is because some people tend to speak very quickly. Also, in text messages some people only type "he's or hes" instead of fully typing he is or he was. I should have made this clearer on my original post. My bad.
    – andrei716
    Jan 23, 2021 at 9:35
  • I assume you already know that is is the present tense and was the past? That's the only difference between the first two. The second two both have the same meaning. It's logical to say "what the difference is" because the difference doesn't change, but people speaking casually will often use was to correspond with I was wondering. Jan 23, 2021 at 10:15

2 Answers 2

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You use "is" for the present tense. Typically when the guy or the cars are still with you.

You use "was" for the past tense. Typically when the guy (or cars) was with you but has now gone.

So you have been telling your friend about a guy. On the street you see the guy and you point him out to your friend and say "He is..."

Or on the street you see the guy. He walks past you and goes away. The you turn to your friend and say "He was"

The word "was" is not contracted, although it might be spoken quickly and unstressed. He's means "he is" or "he has" and never "he was".

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It's a very small difference. Either will be fine in either situation, but "was" puts more emphasis on the fact that you've talked about it before. In the second set, it actually creates that implication.

Compare:

I wanted to ask what you think.

I wanted to ask what you thought.

The past tense "thought" here implies "...at the time that I wanted to ask this", but either is acceptable, because what the listener thinks can't have changed in the few seconds between wanting to ask and asking. If, on the other hand, you wanted to ask a while ago, but lost interest before you could, only the latter is correct (although nobody will notice the difference in casual speech).

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