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Are these sentences interchangeable?

  • If you asked him what his name was, he wouldn’t tell you.

  • If you asked him what his name is, he wouldn’t tell you.

I think it is wrong to use “is” in this sentence because it is the part of a hypothetical if clause. I think the tense of ”be” should match the tense of “ask” so it should be “was” since I said “asked” first.

Normally, “You asked him what his name was” and “You asked him what his name is” are interchangeable, but since in my case “be” is a part of the if clause, it has to be “was” I think. What do you think?

3 Answers 3

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Wow. This is a great question. I'm a native American English speaker, and I had to think about this one for a while.

If I am talking about someone I haven't seen recently or no longer know, the first sentence is the clear winner:

When I was a child, my friend John was very shy. If you asked him what his name was, he wouldn't tell you.

If I am talking about someone I still see, I would use the second.

My friend John is very shy. If you asked him what his name is, he wouldn't tell you.

If I am talking about someone I still see, and I am very confident in my prediction, I would probably use present tense for the whole sentence.

My friend John is very shy. If you ask him what his name is, he won't tell you.

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    I think the confusion on this one arises because of the subjunctive mood ("If you asked him...") which looks like the simple past tense but is not. If it were, then "was" would be required always. As it is, the decision between "was" and "is" depends on the context of the rest of the sentence. "When I was a child..." places us firmly in the past, requiring "was"; "My friend John is very shy..." puts us in the present, where "is" becomes the better choice.
    – RobJarvis
    Jun 9, 2021 at 15:51
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A question that should not be a question.

The problem is not the use of was or is. The problem is the question.

What is for diner? What is on the table? What colour is her hat? What is her name? What is your name?

However here we have morphed a question into a conundrum.

The answer is

If you ask him, "what is your name?" he won’t tell you.

If you had asked him, "what is your name?" he wouldn’t have told you.


In English grammar, the "historical present" is the use of a verb phrase in the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. Ref Historical Present


conundrum; noun [ C ]; a problem that is difficult to deal with: Ref C.E.D.

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I guess it depends on what you want to say. The first sentence is clearly second conditional, so you're correct that the result is only hypothetical.

However, both of the sentences are made of 3 clauses not 2. "What his name was/is" is Wh- interrogative clause --> it function as a noun phrase, so I would say that both sentences are correct, but they will have a slightly different meaning. In the first case you referring to the past with Wh- interrogative clause, but in the second to present. I think both sentences are fine.

Basically the first sentence means that you asked him what his name was in the past (He probably has a different name now), while in the second sentence you say that you asked him what his name is now (he has the same name his whole life).

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    I've edited your second answer into this one. It's rarely useful to give multiple answers to the same question; as you've discovered, you can simply edit your post to add more information.
    – Glorfindel
    Jun 4, 2021 at 14:53

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