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Here is a literally-quoted passage from Martyrs in Paradise: Woman of Mass Destruction by Terry Reese Downing:

"How nice of you. And thank you," she again was appreciative.
"My pleasure. Go back to rest and sleep. Let me know if you needed something and don't hesitate to wake me up," he told her.

Is the use of past tense common in these kind of contexts? Does the use of past here get the point across in a less direct way?

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It's certainly odd. What is the book and who is the writer? –  Barrie England Jul 12 '12 at 6:11
    
@BarrieEngland- Martyrs in Paradise:Woman of Mass Destruction By Terry Reese Downing. I am not sure if the author is a native English speaker. And I don't know if that would make any difference, either. –  Noah Jul 12 '12 at 6:19
    
Downing's "About the Author" section at Amazon says "Born in the Philippines 10 years after World War II, Terry would hear nothing but stories of the war as a boy. And 24 more years before moving permanently to the USA, he had mingled and participated in that country's different tribes, factions and politics." So he might or might not be a native English speaker. However, it seems clear he is not a native English writer, with that sorry "she again was appreciative" line. –  jwpat7 Jul 12 '12 at 18:22

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Yes, it's wrong. It should be present tense need. I suspect the speaker has been misled☟ by the usual clueless nonsense about English having a subjunctive mood.

Students are often told in school that one must "use the subjunctive" in hypothetical clauses. Many interpret this command to mean that, since the verb needed in

  • If I needed anything, I would certainly tell you.

is an example of "subjunctive", then past tense must be what one should use with if.

☝(when I was young, I always pronounced this word /'mayzəld/ when I read it; /mɪs'lɛd/ never occurred to me. Too bad -- misle would be a useful word)

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This has nothing to do with any putative subjunctive mood. –  tchrist Jul 12 '12 at 14:26
    
You got a better hypothesis? –  John Lawler Jul 12 '12 at 14:32
    
Fair question: my hypothesis is that it’s a simple error that was missed by the proofreader. My reasoning is that the languages with a distinct subjunctive inflection would take present not past subjunctive there. Past subjunctive triggers when the other clause is in the conditional, not the imperative. Mood aside, the whole sequence of tenses is off with "IMPERATIVE if PAST" rather than "IMPERATIVE if PRESENT". I guess something like "Let me know if you ate something poisonous" is just barely plausible, but not very likely. –  tchrist Jul 12 '12 at 14:51
    
Regarding sequence of tenses and neighboring languages, French and Spanish have "IMPERATIVE if PRESENT-INDICATIVE", just like English has. Portuguese alone has the exotic "IMPERATIVE if FUTURE-SUBJUNCTIVE". French has "If IMPERFECT-INDICATIVE, then CONDITIONAL", where Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese all have "If IMPERFECT-SUBJUNCTIVE, then CONDITIONAL". It’s this last that you must have been thinking of, John, but I do not think it applies in this instance. –  tchrist Jul 12 '12 at 14:55
    
Oh, I wasn't being anywhere near this international. I don't think it has anything to do with real subjunctives in other languages. And I wasn't concerned with proofreading, but with the source of the 'simple error'. Why would anybody use a past tense verb in English in a situation where they're talking about the future? My best guess is that hypothetical clauses make educated Anglophones nervous because there's sposta be something special about the verb. Most don't understand the hypothetical/counterfactual distinction, look for a funny form to use, and past pops up. –  John Lawler Jul 12 '12 at 15:05

It’s not what I’d expect from a native speaker. It seems as if the writer was thinking of something like You wouldn’t hesitate to wake me up if you needed something, would you? but got confused in putting it down.

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The word "needed" seems incorrect here, it should be "need". It doesn't make sense to ask someone to let them know (in the future) that they needed something (in the past).

You could use "needed" in a conditional:

"I assume you'd let me know if you needed anything."

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Folling if, the simple past temse relates to the future but indicates that, in the view of the speaker, the event us rather unlikely.

I could say 'If you go to the party, you might meet XX'. However, if you first indicate reluctance to go to the party, I would probably say 'If you went to the party...'

Perhaps the speaker in the example given is supposed to think the other is unlikely to want anything. That said, it certainly seems a very unusual and rather clumsy construction in this instance; it seems rather inhospitable to imply that the other party is expected not to need anything.

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