I am around a group of people who, for whatever reason, have developed the habit of talking odd tenses. I'm no English or grammar expert but here is what I mean.

Instead of saying "Can I borrow your car?", they might say " I was wondering if I could borrow your car." Or, instead of "Is the mechanic's name Robert?", they might say "I am wondering if the mechanic's name is Robert."

These aren't great examples but the bottom line is, when I talk to these people, I often feel manipulated or that they are generally manipulative in the language use.

Does any of this make sense? Is it perhaps recognized as a topic of study I could research? Say, "How people use the continuous aspect in manipulative conversation" or something like that.

If this makes absolutely no sense to anyone, feel free to heckle...

****Many thanks to all who gave an answer to this. My examples weren't the best but I think what you have shown me is that the people around me choose to speak in a very passive voice. I think they "hedge" a lot more than people in other peer groups. However, the feeling of manipulation comes from the expectation that I will measure up to certain norms of "nicety" or "niceness" (sorry, I don't know the right word) because they were so nice and passive they way they asked. This may not make any more sense than my first post but thanks! I appreciate your love for language.

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    This is beautifully answered in an aside to an answer for another question which I suppose could be separated out as an answer here. The question is not a duplicate. – Andrew Leach Mar 1 '13 at 8:48
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    "I was wondering if I could / might borrow your car(?)" sounds quite standard and unsurprising; it is a 'hedged' (less abrasive) form of "Can I borrow your car?" 'Could you please just shut the window' contains three hedging devices - politeness pragmatic markers please and just, and the modal usage. 'Shut the window' and especially 'SHUT THE XXXX WINDOW!' are unhedged variants. The second example in the original doesn't require such hedging, and sounds faintly ridiculous. 'Could you tell me if / Is the mechanic's name (is) Robert, please?' contain the idiomatic styles of hedging here. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 1 '13 at 8:52
  • It could be slightly manipulative, because they are actually saying is different than how they want what they're saying to be interpreted. "I am wondering if the mechanic's name is Robert" is a statement, and you would be technically justified in an answer like "oh, you are?" By phrasing it the way they did, they're requiring you to, in a very slight way, take an extra step of interpreting what they actually want, and proactively offering a solution. They probably aren't doing this consciously. – kbelder Mar 1 '13 at 15:17
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    Um, I don’t see any passive voice in your examples. What do you mean? – tchrist Mar 2 '13 at 14:57

I'm going to speculate here, because I am one of those people that says "I was wondering..." pretty regularly. The aside Andrew Leach is referencing is decent as well, but I feel like it might not capture the essence perfectly.

I would argue that adding "I was wondering..." is actually the opposite of manipulative - when I use the phrase I feel like it is less confrontational than a direct question. If I ask you "What is the mechanic's name?" I am implying that I expect you to know the answer. If I say "I was wondering what the mechanic's name is?" I am in essence indicating that while I certainly need to know the answer, I don't necessarily expect you to be the person who will provide me that information. I'm attempting to take some of the pressure out of the question.

I've never put much thought into it before now; it seems fairly silly in retrospect. But I would definitely not feel that I was attempting to manipulate anyone by saying, instead I'm trying to give them an easy out if they don't know the answer.

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    Yes - this use of less abrasive forms of address is known as 'hedging' (the word doesn't just mean using evasive techniques). There's a good article at Wikipedia. Euphemisms are one type of hedging device. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 1 '13 at 15:53

This is not a matter of "manipulativeness" (which is an individual judgement of others' motives), but rather of politeness (which is a social universal).

As Edwin has pointed out, this is a form of indirectness known in Politeness Theory as "hedging". Bald on-record orders like Open the door! challenge the addressee's face and status, whereas indirect requests following from utterances like I was wondering whether you might open the door are not on record and do not threaten. Many of these hedging strategies have become fixed phrases with their own pragmatic import.

For instance, the hedging modal auxiliary shall occurs in American English almost exclusively in two constructions, both first person:

  • in first person plural, as an indirect invitation for the addressee to participate in some activity with the speaker

    • Shall we dance?
  • in first person singular, as an indirect noffer to perform a service for the addressee

    • Shall I open the window?

Every language has loads of politeness phenomena that aren't encoded in grammar, but piggy-back on it in ordinary speech. Don't expect language to be literal, except occasionally and unpredictably.

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