Is there a difference between these two? Which one is more common?

I was wondering if I ( needed / need ) to take my own towel.

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    Related question on ELU Feb 19, 2015 at 18:00
  • @JasonPatterson That's not actually related. That question is about the past tense in the phrase I was wondering. This question is about the use of present or past tense of need/ed.
    – Catija
    Feb 20, 2015 at 7:14
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    Could you untick that answer, please. The Original Poster of that post has recognised that it's wrong. But he wouldn't be able to delete it because it's ticked ... Feb 21, 2015 at 1:29
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    @araucaria yes, of course
    – jihoon
    Feb 23, 2015 at 4:15
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    jihoon, do you want to know if we can use the past tense to be more polite? If so, please edit your question to make it more clear. The answer would be yes, and that has been asked and answered on the link @Jason provided above, as well as this example: We can use the past forms to talk about the present in a few polite expressions: Excuse me, I was wondering if this was the train for York. From the British Council's grammar page on the past tense Feb 28, 2015 at 10:18

3 Answers 3


Strictly speaking I think this is probably a duplicate of Past tense for indicating long distance (a somewhat misleading title, since the OP is actually asking about the significance of the verb tense in, for example, "What is/was your name?").

The answer is that in almost all contexts, the verb tense in OP's example sentence has nothing to do with Past/Present. Native speakers frequently use "I was wondering..." instead of "I wonder...", because the past tense metaphorically "distances" the speaker from the utterance - which has the net effect of being more deferential, hesitant, polite, formal.

Partly for the same reason, and partly just because it sounds more "consistent", we often describe "the thing wondered about" in the past tense as well. Hence...

1: "I was wondering what your name was"
usually means exactly the same as
2: "I wonder what your name is"

...but to most native speakers, #2 might often seem rather brusque, if not actually rude.


The present tense would be used in the following situation:

I'm going to the pool in my hotel. I call the front desk and say:

"I'm going to visit the pool. I was wondering if I need to take my own towel or if there are some there to use."

Now, for the past tense... well, it's the past tense:

My spouse and I get down to the pool and he says, "I heard you on the phone up in the room. What was that about". And I say:

"I called the front desk because I was wondering if I needed to take my own towel or if they had some down here."

Now, to add to this... From what Khan said,

I wonder if I need to take my own towel.

This is valid but it would be more of an internal dialogue. It can be said to someone else but is normally done rhetorically.:

I'm pulling together my stuff to go down to the pool. I think to myself (or wonder aloud to my spouse):

I wonder if I need to take my own towel... maybe I should call the front desk and ask

I am wondering if I need to take my own towel.

This is a slightly unusual statement that I would argue would be used rarely... specifically in a case like:

I'm sitting on the bed in my hotel room, thinking. My spouse comes into the room and asks, "What are you thinking about?". I would then say:

"I'm going down to the pool and I am wondering if I need to take my own towel. I think I'll call the front desk and ask."


Using "I was wondering if I needed to take my own towel" can be more polite. A listener doesn't need to feel compelled to accecpt it or handle it right now. I would use this sentence rather than the one using present tense.

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    I don't understand how this is more polite.
    – Catija
    Feb 20, 2015 at 7:01
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    I'm sorry, but they've incorrectly attributed the question to apply to yours. The question on ELU is about using I was wondering vs I am wondering. That is not what you are asking. You are asking what the difference is between need and needed. There is no politeness difference between I was wondering if I need... and I was wondering if I needed.
    – Catija
    Feb 20, 2015 at 8:08

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