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Why do people never say the following:

I have wanted to ask. . . .

Maybe it would be better to ask whether it’s correct to say:

I have wanted to ask. . . .

But really I think I’ve never heard that form. Usually I hear people say (for example):

I wanted to ask how you spent this morning.

I’m talking about the situation when, for instance, one person is discussing something with other people. Suppose in the middle of the discussion, the person realises that they need to get some complementary information from the speaker. They wait for their turn to have a word, and when their turn comes, they say:

I have wanted to ask you, how do you make pastries?

That is, they wish to ask the question which occurred in the mind of the person, and they retained the thought until the moment they asked the speaker. Is it formally correct for them to use present perfect there?

Of course, there is another situation when you say:

Yesterday I wanted to ask you about your health, but you had fled. How are you now?

And here it seems quite okay to use the simple past.

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People do say "I have always wanted to ask ..." –  Peter Shor Dec 9 '12 at 18:54
    
Well, yes. Thank you. However it's a bit different situation. :-) –  krokoziabla Dec 9 '12 at 18:55
    
I think the main reason is that you would probably only be pointing that out if you were actually going to ask. And saying "have wanted" implies that you stopped. If you stopped wanting to ask, why are you asking? –  David Schwartz Dec 10 '12 at 3:38
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think OP's basic premise is mistaken (Here are about 5,700 results from Google Books for "I have wanted to ask", so it's certainly not true that we never say it.

And in some contexts ("I've always wanted to ask", or "I have wanted to ask for some time now"), Present Perfect is arguably more natural than Simple Past "I wanted to ask".


As OP suspects (and as backed up by his comment re 2,120,000 GB hits for "I wanted to ask"), the Simple Past form superficially seems almost 40 times more common.

Whilst I agree Present Perfect really is less common than Simple Past in OP's "polite question" contexts, the preference is nowhere near as marked as those figures suggest, since most of the 2,120,000 instances reference past time in a "narrative" context (where only Simple Past works).

But even allowing for that, I'm sure there's still a preference. I don't disagree with Barrie's point about Past Perfect Continuous (I have been wanting to ask) often displacing Present Perfect (I have wanted to ask), but there's at least one other factor in play here...

Both Past Perfect Continuous and Present Perfect imply strong links to the present moment. But in OP's primary context, "I wanted to ask [you] [some question] is often just a fairly meaningless "deferential introduction to an interruption" (a bit like the polite throat-clearing "Ahem...").

In such situations, the speaker is deliberately trying to create "distance" between himself/his words and the "present moment" (that's why we say "I wanted to ask" rather than "I want to ask" in the first place!). Obviously it would be counter-productive to use a verb form that's specifically adapted to linking events in the past to the present moment.

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Well, for "I wanted to ask" there are some 2,120,000 results. :-) –  krokoziabla Dec 9 '12 at 19:08
    
+1, also, perhaps, "I have wanted..." raises the question "when?", so it's mainly used in constructions that already have an answer: "I've always wanted to ask", "I have wanted to ask you this since the time when...", etc. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 9 '12 at 19:21
    
@FumbleFingers Thank you for your edit. But I don't understand why you removed "s" endings. As far as I understand "they" in this context is a singular pronoun and thus the verb should end with "s", shouldn't it? –  krokoziabla Dec 9 '12 at 19:23
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@krokoziabla: Even when used as a singular, "they" is conjugated as a plural (same for "you"; you don't say "you was" or "they was" but "you were" and "they were", even when talking about a single person). –  Peter Shor Dec 9 '12 at 20:12
    
@krokoziabla: I didn't bother to check that other figure, but I did say simple past was "probably more common" (I knew perfectly well it would be!). The first version of your question text didn't seem to even accept that present perfect was used to any significant degree, so I just took issue with that. I don't disagree anything Barrie says about why, but I have my own thoughts on that too, so I'll edit to reflect the revised question. But I'll just say here that you should be careful not to over-analyse this particular one (though I probably will, in a minute! :) –  FumbleFingers Dec 9 '12 at 22:53
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People don’t usually say I have wanted to ask . . . because the wanting has probably continued over a period of time. To describe that state of affairs, it is more usual to say I have been wanting to ask…

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That's a bit surprising. I thought "want" was kind of state verb and therefore it couldn't be used in continuous form. But I've got the idea. –  krokoziabla Dec 9 '12 at 19:08
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It's not normally found as a present continuous form. –  Barrie England Dec 9 '12 at 19:31
    
@Barrie: You can say that again! It's not easy to think of contexts where "I am wanting to ask you [some question]" would come from anyone except a non-native speaker. I know it can very occasionally be a "proper" usage, but for anyone who's not absolutely certain they know when it's okay, the safest thing is to avoid it completely. –  FumbleFingers Dec 9 '12 at 23:55
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"I have wanted to ask" is not only valid in some circumstances but also "natural" and unstrained. eg

  • "I have wanted to ask you for some time how you manage to achieve [ ... insert achievement here] ... , and I am delighted to finally have the opportunity to do so".

When used like this, the phrase is really more about complimenting somebody than on informing them re your desire to ask.


"I wanted to ask" and "I have wanted to ask" may be subtly different in intent. "I wanted to ask ...." is often no more than preparing the hearer to receive a question.
It can (but does not have to) equate exactly with "I want to ask ..." or "I wish to ask ..."
It could be replaced by eg "Can you tell me ..." or "Now here's my question..." or
"I wish to ask the following question ...".
ie whereas it says "wanted" rather than "want" the past tense is not necessarily understood to convey past wanting.

Whereas "I have wanted to ask ..." suggests that the past or continuous-past act of wanting is a genuine and relevant part of what is being communicated.
ie you could not reasonably replace "I have wanted to ask ..." with "My question is, ..." without changing meaning.

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I think that's a valid point. Tying your example to the "rationale" I've just added to my own answer, it seems to me when you're using "I [want] ask you" as an "introduction" to a "complimentary" utterance, you actually do want to link your words to the present moment ("Hey! Listen to me here, now! I'm gonna say something nice to you!"). So you choose a verb form to reflect that. –  FumbleFingers Dec 9 '12 at 23:44
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