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Is it correct to say "What was your name?"? The reason I am asking this is, generally the name of the person will not change. One should say "What is your name?"

http://variationsonnormal.com/2010/05/26/sorry-what-was-your-name-again/

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Changes in name are not unusual, particularly as a result of marriage. –  Kramii Sep 22 '10 at 14:51
    
@Kramii: That only happens in some cultures. In others, you don't change your name just because you get married. –  CesarGon Oct 24 '12 at 11:00
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5 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The question is in the past tense because the person forgot the other person's name. Notice that he actually wrote "Sorry, what was your name again?". It means "You've already told me your name, but I can't remember what it is. Can you repeat?" and not that the name may have changed. If the person used the present tense (i.e. "What is your name?"), it would not have been clear that he knew that he had already asked that before.

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so that mean it is correct to say "what was your name", and it will not be treated as "i know what your name is but what was your name last monday btw". –  Rakesh Juyal Sep 20 '10 at 11:48
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yes, you can use "sorry, what was your name again?" when you forget somebody's name. It will not be treated as if you thought that the name changed. –  b.roth Sep 20 '10 at 12:11
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I agree for the most part, but would like to point out that introducing that word "again" makes the present tense work just as well as the past tense. "Sorry, what is your name again?" and "Sorry, what's your name again?" are not exactly unheard of. –  RegDwigнt Sep 20 '10 at 15:20
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The past tense carries over from the more wordy "What did you say your name was?" –  moioci Sep 20 '10 at 15:31
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Thanks for the answer! I had been wondering the same thing. In Japanese, the construction parallel to “What was your name?” (お名前は何でしたか。) is a usual way to ask the name of a person again. The English expression “Sorry, what was your name again?” sounds natural to me, but I did not know whether it was because Japanese is my mother tongue. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 31 '10 at 12:44
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Idiomatically, it's quite common for people to ask "What was your name?" even in contexts where both they and you know perfectly well that you haven't already given your name (and thus that they can't possibly have "forgotten" it).

Sometimes the past tense can be "explained" by saying the speaker isn't sure whether the name has already been given. Other times we might suppose if the speaker is looking for a record/document in a filing system, they're thinking in terms of your name when it was recorded (with no particular implication that it might have changed since).

But in practice the usage is sufficiently widespread, and those above possibilities so "precise", that it's unrealistic to suppose all native speakers consider carefully whether the past tense can be justified in any specific context. Some people use it, that's all.


I notice comments suggesting that because superficially the past tense may seem illogical, this somehow leads to the idea that it should be avoided in formal contexts. This I think is completely contrary to actual usage, wherein such use of the past tense is generally more formal.

My reason for saying that is that as a general principle, formal modes of address tend to use many techniques to "distance" the speaker from the current context (using one instead of I, conditional "What would you like?" rather than "What do you want?", etc.).

To my ear, "What was your name?" is in fact "formal" register. Consider a salesman saying...

"I see you're looking at our new range of [product], sir. Did you have anything particular in mind?"
"Did you want to pay by cash or by cheque?"
"Was that all, sir?"
"Will that be all, sir?"

Note particularly those last two. There aren't many contexts where it makes any difference whether the salesman uses past or future tense there - all that matters is that avoiding present tense has the effect of imposing "distance", so it's more associated with formal registers.

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It is correct to ask the question using the past tense if you know the person's name has changed and you want to know the previous name.

This can happen through marriage.

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Well, strictly speaking that's true, but if that's what you wanted to ask you wouldn't do it that way. –  emodendroket Jun 24 at 18:46
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No. It is not correct to ask "what was your name?" because the name has not changed within a few minutes. It is however, correct to ask "what is your name again, please?" The first example assumes the person knows you forgot it and therefore are asking again. Avoid confusion and and ask correctly. "What is your name?" not "what was your name?". There is no carrying over from anything nor should it be passed on to the person you are asking. Say it enough times and the obvious choice becomes well, obvious.

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As the accepted answer points out, "what was your name?" is not meant to mean "At a point in time in the past, what was the name you were using?", but rather means "I've forgotten your name, please repeat it to me." It may not appear logical, but to call it incorrect would be a stretch. It's what people say, and it's fully understood by most people. It just doesn't mean what it appears to mean on the surface. Lots of phrases are like that. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 4 at 20:23
    
Just because people know "what you mean" does not make it "correct" and this is why I say that is in fact INCORRECT grammar to ask what "was" your name because whether someone knows what you meant or not asking was implies it has changed. I stand firm with "what "is" your name again?" –  user2933937 Jun 9 at 18:46
    
Your justification supports the idea that communication trumps correctness. "Don't no one want no killings here!" is an example of bad grammar yet it is understood that "killings are not condoned around these places". –  user2933937 Jun 9 at 19:19
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I'm sorry to break it to you, but communication does trump correctness. "Don't no one want no killings here" is an example of perfectly fine grammar that is looked down upon by other people; that is, it's only "incorrect" because a bunch of people with higher social status prefer to look down on that grammar. It's not like that sentence doesn't have its own rules for how you can form negations or where you can put words. They're just different from the "Standard" rules. Anyway, lots of phrases that superficially don't appear to make sense are accepted and standard. Such as the OP's. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 9 at 19:46
    
@Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 This is not a nonstandard construction, anyway. –  emodendroket Jun 24 at 18:48
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"What was your name?" should only be used when asking a person what a previous name of theirs is.

If you have not given your name to someone or they don't remember what you said the proper question to ask is "May I have your name please?".

Now I would not be bothered by someone with authority, say a teacher or police officer, asking "What is your name."

There is no reason to dumb down the English language especially when using it in public or business conversations.

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The first sentence of this answer is wrong. The accepted answer provides a much better guide to the usage OP asked about. –  High Performance Mark Jun 24 at 18:41
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Please, don't feed this nonsense to learners who might actually believe it. –  emodendroket Jun 24 at 18:46
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