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What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences?

I really don't know what she would like to have for a birthday present, so I bought a purse.

I really didn't know what she would like to have for a birthday present, so I bought a purse.

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    If you have found out in the meantime what she would like to have for a birthday present (so that you know it at the time of speech), then you probly wouldn't use the first one, because you really do know that. Other than that, there's no difference in meaning, and any native speaker could produce either one in any situation. See, nobody cares what you knew or when you knew it; the point of the sentence is to announce that you bought a purse on spec, and nobody will notice the tense of the verb in the introductory clause. – John Lawler Dec 4 '13 at 15:51
  • Thank you very much. I hold the same view as yours. It just appears in a practice question for TOEIC test that: "I really (don't/didn't/doesn't/not) know what she would like to have for a birthday present, so I bought a purse." and you have to pick one as answer. And I thought both don't and didn't can do but with different meanings as a whole. – Stephen Dec 4 '13 at 16:15
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    Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of TOEIC test writers? Gods know it's not English grammar they're on about. – John Lawler Dec 4 '13 at 16:16
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John Lawler is correct:

If you have found out in the meantime what she would like to have for a birthday present (so that you know it at the time of speech), then you probly wouldn't use the first one, because you really do know that. Other than that, there's no difference in meaning, and any native speaker could produce either one in any situation. See, nobody cares what you knew or when you knew it; the point of the sentence is to announce that you bought a purse on spec, and nobody will notice the tense of the verb in the introductory clause.

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John Lawler is correct, in the context of ordinary conversation (though "what she would like to have" is awfully stiff for chatting with a friend).

That said, "so" indicates that you bought the purse because you didn't know what she might like (at the time you bought the purse). The relevant action of knowing (or not knowing) has to come before the buying, and therefore you should use the past tense.

If you prefer the present tense, then a good option might be: "I really don't know what she would like to have for a birthday present, but I bought a purse."

Stylistically, though, in ordinary conversation I'd say either, "I didn't know what to get her for her birthday, so I bought her a purse," or "I don't know what she wants for her birthday, but I bought her a purse."

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