Questions asked using past tense forms of Will/Can/Shall/Do, some examples like:

"Would you mind...?"
"Could you please...?"
"Should I do...?"
"Did you want any help?"
"Did you want something?"

It seems people are using past tense forms in these sort of questions, when there is nothing wrong to use present tense for the exact same meaning.

Why is that?

Is this a hint of being polite or humble? Is there a grammar rule for this construct?

I know people wanted to refer me to modals but Do/Did is not one of them. And even if you are thinking about modals, and we know their usages, still the question is why the past tense forms are more polite compare to present tense forms? Whats the reason behind English where past tense forms mean politeness?

  • 1
    Most of those aren't actually past tense, they're modals, but there is something to your observation. The past tense did is often like a reference to someone signaling to you - it's kind of a version of "Did you signal to me because you wanted something?"
    – stangdon
    Jun 30, 2016 at 15:28
  • @stangdon that's exactly what they tried to explain on the ELU question...
    – Catija
    Jun 30, 2016 at 16:06
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    AFAICT, the basic idea of the use of past forms (modal or not) is to be less "direct". And being indirect goes together well with our politeness in general. Jun 30, 2016 at 17:34
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    Honestly, the two sentences that use "did" seem like they could be very rude, depending on tone... a much more polite, less ambiguous way of asking these would be to say something like "May I help you with something?" or "Is there anything I can do for you?"
    – Catija
    Jun 30, 2016 at 18:41
  • 1
    Far from politeness, tense can also imply impatience. "Was there something you wanted?" from a clerk feels markedly less solicitous than "Do you want something?" Then again, the present can also be less than welcoming: "And you are ... ?" Jun 30, 2016 at 21:29

1 Answer 1


It's a little unclear to me (native American English speaker) whether in polite sentences the modals are, formally, in the subjunctive mood, or indicative but counterfactual conditionals. (Some reference here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_modal_verbs#Past_forms)

Either way, though, they are polite because they express a condition that is doubtful or contrary to fact. You can see this behavior in some other examples:

He can go to the store

Implies simply that he is able

He could go to the store

Implies that he is able, but in most contexts implies that he won't. When you say:

Would you go to the store with me?

You're expressing a doubt as to whether or not they will, which is a less forceful way of asking.

  • Thanks. I think this is where the confusing part is. How do you distinguish if it is an "indirect" past form or in fact asking for the past? Like in your example: "Would you go to the store with me?", "Yes I would if it wasn't raining yesterday". Another one "Would you marry me?", "Yes I would but its too late". Jul 1, 2016 at 1:07
  • To make clear that I'm using the past, I would include the word "have" to make it the perfect tense. In your example, to make it the past tense, I would say "Would you have gone to the store with me?" "Yes, I would have if it wasn't raining yesterday". "Would you have married me?" "Yes, I would have but it's too late (now)"
    – noah
    Jul 1, 2016 at 14:35

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