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Why isn't the present tense used?

I am wondering if you would like to come for dinner.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Using the past tense is a way of offering flexibility in an invitation or request. You don't need to feel compelled to accept because it is being phrased as a passing thought. A whim.

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The difference between

I wonder if you'd like to come for dinner

and

I was wondering if you'd like to come for dinner

is that the second sounds more hesitant. It's used to make the invitation less direct and thus more polite. "I wonder if you'd like to come for dinner" sounds like something your boss would say, it's almost like an order to come to dinner.

There's nothing wrong with the grammar in the second form; if you are wondering now then you must have been wondering for at least a small period of time beforehand.

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I was wondering, and now I am asking.

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There isn't a strict sense of time when we use "I was wondering ..." in the sense being discussed here. In "Yesterday, I was wondering about Einstein and his ... .", there is a sense of time and there is a distinct use of the past tense. –  Dan Apr 20 '11 at 19:12
    
[missed the 5 minute limit] [continued] But sometimes we use the past tense FORM, and it has no connection to time, to be indirect and therefore more polite/softer/deferential. I'm wondering, in this sense, could have just as much wondering that has gone on already as I was wondering. [in a taxi, customer changes their mind as to the original destination] "Excuse me, I was wondering if you could just drop me over there by the hydrant." –  Dan Apr 20 '11 at 19:20

"I was wondering" gives the other more freedom to accept or refuse because it has the feeling that I will not get embarrassed if you refuse my invitation because I was and not I am ! That was in the past!

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2  
Yes, it's a vague statement. –  delete Aug 29 '10 at 7:17

Why isn't the present tense used?

I am wondering if you would like to come for dinner.

=========================

The only word indicating tense in your example is 'am'. But in this situation, it's really only a present tense FORM. This FORM is used to be more direct, in this case, it could [note 'could' is a future] be taken as rather abrupt.

Past tense FORMS, "I was wondering" are used in English to be more indirect and therefore more polite, softer, less challenging.

Compare "Do you want something to eat?" versus "Did you want something to eat?"

Tense FORMs as opposed to the actual use of tense to mark time are simply different grammatical/pragmatic animals.

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