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For example, someone on the phone said, "I was calling to ask for a form," when she meant to say, "I am calling to ask for a form."

I hear this consistently, and usually in customer service situations. It is also being used by the under-30 crowd, of which my daughter is one, but as an out of state resident, she also finds it odd, and thinks it may be a coloquialism.

What's confusing is the person asking the question is typically unaware of their tense confusion, almost in the same way that someone saying, "like" cannot hear themselves. I'm sure I say similar things, but I try to weed them out, for clarity of communication.

Can anyone shed some light on this usage, or have others noticed the trend?

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    There's nothing wrong with that usage. It is standard usage, and has been for a long time. If anything, it is the expected usage and is considered to be the more polite version than your preferred version. (Someone might provide an answer post with the grammatical explanation.) – F.E. Apr 29 '14 at 16:41
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    Since about the twelfth century the past tense (specifically the past subjunctive) has been used for polite requests in the present time. This is why we say I would like instead of I will like and also why he could do it can mean either he was able to do it or he may be capable of doing it. – Anonym Apr 29 '14 at 16:44
  • The past tense adds extra politeness. See Why is the past tense used in “I was wondering if you would like to come for dinner?” and the related questions linked from there. – RegDwigнt Apr 29 '14 at 18:27
  • Consider that she's been on hold for 15 minutes. – Hot Licks Jun 6 at 1:23
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For example, someone on the phone said, "I was calling to ask for a form," when she meant to say, "I am calling to ask for a form."

There's nothing wrong with that past-tense usage. It is standard usage, and has been for a long time. If anything, it is the expected usage and is considered to be the more polite version than your preferred version. (Aside: questions similar to yours do come up every now and then on grammar forums.)

Here's some related info from the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), page 138:

4.3.2 Past time reference in combination with politeness/diffidence

The preterite [the "preterite" is the same as "past-tense" -- F.E.] is commonly used in preference to the present in examples like the following, where it is considered somewhat more polite:

[39]

  • i. I wanted to ask your advice.

  • ii. I wondered whether I could see you for a few minutes.

The politeness/diffidence feature is also found with the past progressive: I was hoping to see the Manager. The prototypical case (for either aspect) is that illustrated in [39], a declarative with 1st person subject, but 3rd person subjects can be used when I am talking on someone else's behalf: My daughter was hoping to to speak to the Manager. And the same usage carries over into interrogatives, with a switch to 2nd person subject: Did you want to see me?

The following could help in understanding the apparent time related discrepancy: why the past-tense is being used instead of present-tense. CGEL page 138:

Politeness/diffidence feature as an implicature

This conventional use of the preterite is quite consistent with its basic past time meaning. It would not be correct to say that [39], for example, is an ambiguous sentence, interpretable in one sense as describing my wants at some time in the past and in another as a more polite, more diffident version of I want to ask your advice. Rather, the first of these interpretations corresponds to what the sentence means, and the second is a context-dependent implicature deriving from that basic, literal meaning. In the absence of any contextual indication that I am referring to some definite time in the non-immmediate past, T(r) will here be interpreted as immediate past time. As the situations are states, not occurrences, use of the preterite does not entail that the state no longer obtains. And since there is nothing to suggest that the state has ended, the interpretation will be that the state also obtains at T(d), so that [39] conveys "I want to ask your advice", "I wonder whether I can see you for a few minutes".

The added politeness associated with the preterite comes from avoiding explicit reference to the immediate present: I distance myself slightly and thus avoid the risk of appearing too direct, possibly brusque.

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To me it reminds me of the past subjunctive in Spanish usage.

When you're asking politely for something, instead of using the conditional indicative, (i.e. I would like) you use more often the past subjunctive (i.e. I was hypothetically wanting). Might have nothing to do with it, but that's what it seems like to me.

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The 'past' form does not always signify past tense, although we give it that name. Very often it signifies counterfactuality or hypotheticality or courteous 'softening':

  • If they were here they would help you.
  • If I went to London I could visit the British Library.
  • I wondered if I might speak with the Chief.

Many linguists now call this a remote form, to address this multiplicity of uses.

If it really bothers you, you may suppose that the callers are explaining what motivated them to place the call; but I think that's spurious.

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F.E has given some of the better examples, I will consider the same:

  • i. I wanted to ask your advice.

I am under the impression that, it may mean, I wanted... to ask your advice before but not now. This would leave the other person in a feeling to advice you. I think, the sentence is grammatically correct and even signifies politeness.

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