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Here are two example questions:

  1. What did he mean by that?
  2. What does he mean by that?

Question 1 seems correct to me because it uses the past tense word 'did,' but the word could also signify that his meaning has changed; which it hasn't. This is why I also think that question 2 could be correct. Would I use Question 2 if the statement the person is referring to was just asked, and use question 1 when the statement was said a while ago?

Can someone please clear my confusion? Thanks!

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    Both are OK with little, if any, nuance in meaning. – Armen Ծիրունյան Oct 30 '13 at 19:54
  • In one you are asking what he meant when he said it. In the second you are asking what he generally means when he says it. If he hasn't changed his beliefs within the last few minutes, they refer to the same thing. – John Lawler Oct 30 '13 at 20:49
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Using the present tense implies that whatever was said or written has present relevance; for example because a decision has to be made or action taken based on an interpretation of the message.

It is certainly more likely that a recent message will have present relevance, but it is also true that something written some time ago may require a present interpretation and consequent action. In such a case What does he mean by that? is perfectly acceptable.

If the past tense is used for the question, no implication is made as to the present relevance of what was said. The message may or may not have present relevance.

As an aside, it cannot be that the past tense may 'signify that his (the speaker's) meaning has changed'. Whatever the speaker meant at the time of saying it remains unchanged. What may have changed in the meantime is the speaker's position or opinion on the topic in question.

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Here's a scenario:

Three guys are talking to each other. Person A uses a word, or phrase, or sentence, or a complete, multi-sentence thought that either person B or person C does not understand. When person A leaves the room, leaving persons B and C behind, person B might say to person C:

"What did he mean by that?"

That question refers to what person A just said. However,

"What does he mean by that?"

is virtually the same, but person B, having heard person A use the same word or phrase, etc., for the second or third time, could be asking person C:

"What does he mean by that?"

meaning that what person A said before (at least two or more times) in person B's hearing includes both the past and the present. Person B assumes the word or phrase, etc., meant the same thing the first time, the second time, the third time, etc., as well as the most recent time.

That's how I explain at least one possible difference between the two sentences. There may be more.

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Did is the past tense ,so it refers to what the person said in past. Does is the present form so it implies what he says in the present as simple as that.

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According to my level of knowledge, I would agree that did connotes a past event while does indicates a present situation.

So if something immediate is being referenced, option two is correct. If, on the other hand, the reference concerns something that's already taken place, then option one applies. So in this case, given that you're referring to a past time frame, the accurate choice is option one, did.

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