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Which sentence from the title sounds more natural when asking for clarification about something which has already been discussed? Is one tense preferable overall? Take the following examples:

Where is it they said they live/lived again?
Whose mittens are/were these again?
How many cookies does/did she want again?
When are/were we leaving tomorrow again?

Personally, I'm much more partial to the past tense. Since the issue at hand has already been established beforehand, you're simply restating it in question form as something new with "again".

Opinions?

  • "Again" as you're using it is a sentence adverb that can be applied equally to present- or past-tense utterances. – Robusto May 28 '15 at 10:45
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My tendency is to use the present tense verbs when the subject I'm clarifying is currently present or would be expected to be present again. Likewise for the past tense; if I don't expect that subject to be present again, then I would prefer the past.

As an example, I would use "what is his name again" in cases where I'm talking about a friend I expect to see again, someone I met who is still at the same party, and so on. Conversely I would use "what was his name again" to talk about a salesman I'll never see again, a coworker that moved to tibet to be a monk, or other cases like that.

Put another way, my choice in normal speech becomes a reflection of the possibly unspoken current circumstances and future expectations surrounding the person or thing I'm inquiring about.

  • I like this interpretation. I'll have to stay observant and see if others apply the tenses similarly. – zeek Jun 1 '15 at 13:08
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"What is his name again?"

Here's how its context is usually understood: "What is his name, (tell me) again!" We tend to ask this way to get that piece of information once again, while acknowledging the fact that it was already told.

We wouldn't use "again" otherwise. A simple "What's his name?" will suffice. The same applies to all other examples you've listed.

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When people have asked me, "What was your name again?" I have found myself answering, "It still is Michele." I may have told a person my name a month, a week or 5 minutes ago, but it is highly unlikely I would have changed it and asking me what "was" my name seems to me to imply I have a different one now. (Yes, I do tend to take things very literally!)

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