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I have just given my surname to someone on the telephone, and they asked me as do most people these days How are you spelling the name? It always sounds as if they think I change my name every day and they would like to know how I am spelling it today. In any case I wasn't spelling it, I was saying it!

Why is the time honoured How do you spell your name, please?, only rarely used? It seems to be a more logical way of asking, since the way I spell it today is the same way I have been spelling it for decades - and I suppose that's the same with most people. It is also the way my eighteenth-century ancestors spelled it.

Is it perhaps that the latter sounds too direct a question to ask someone and how are you spelling seems less brusque and more polite. Or is it just a daft affectation that has caught on?

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    But presumably NGrams are assembled from books and publications. I am talking here about a telephone manner. – WS2 Jun 3 '15 at 9:36
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    But when they ask, you haven't yet begun to spell it. So present progressive isn't called for. What seems to me most apt, and sufficiently polite, is "Could you spell that, please?" – Brian Hitchcock Jun 3 '15 at 11:09
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    +1- I'm going with "...daft affectation". – Oldbag Jun 3 '15 at 11:45
  • I'd go with polite. telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3602713/… – TRomano Jun 3 '15 at 13:11
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    @Mari-LouA No, it is in widespread use in the UK. That is why I asked the question. – WS2 Jun 4 '15 at 11:57
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I'm reluctant to make assumptions here but I think that form is quite common in Indian English -- are you dealing with outsourced call centres?

The only alternative in which it's not wrong is along the lines of "how are you spelling your name this week" -- an unlikely question.

  • I believe the person to whom I was speaking this morning was Anglo-Saxon, or at least someone who spoke UK English as their first language. But I agree that much Indian speech makes use of the progressive. Will you be wanting poppadoms, chapatis or naan bread with your vegetable biryani? The batsman was hitting the ball over the roof of the stand. This may explain something about the increasing use of the present progressive in the UK generally. – WS2 2 mins ago edit – WS2 Jun 3 '15 at 13:00
  • @WS2 I've a feeling there's somewhere in these islands where this is also common, but I can't think where. Presumably though that would be likely to pair with an accent that you would have picked up. – Chris H Jun 3 '15 at 13:13
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    Unlikely question? Depends on whom you’re talking to, I suppose. “So, Mr. Artist-formerly-known-as-the-artist-formerly-known-as-someone-who-once-had-a-weird-symbol-for-a-name, how are you spelling your name this week?” ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 3 '15 at 15:48
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This makes me think of a current trend on TV to say "I'm loving what you've done here." eg on fashion or makeover shows, expressing admiration for changes made.

If you google "I'm loving this" you get lots of hits such as this one from Cambridge.org

Most good grammar books advise students, “Don’t use stative verbs in the present progressive.” For example, one shouldn’t say, I am knowing the truth but rather I know the truth. The verb know is stative because it indicates a long-term condition, not a discrete action. The same holds true for ordinary uses of agree, hear, hate, love, think, and want and many other verbs.

However, your students may pose counter-cases. What about I’m agreeing with you or—even more colloquially—a fast-food ad that claims I’m loving it? First, let’s acknowledge that rules about verb usage are really more like guidelines. If discourse conditions require language to shift, it will shift. Few people would call foul on I’m agreeing with you. It means “I am saying something that shows agreement” and is clearly distinct from I agree with you (“In general or over the long term, I have an opinion similar to yours”).

In the fast-food ads I’m loving it draws attention to the speaker’s being in an enjoyable moment, not in a long-term state of enjoyment. The intended meaning is “I have my burger and this moment is great.” Similarly, if I whisper to a colleague at a meeting I’m hating this, I want to say that things are temporarily unpleasant, but this too will pass. In I’m thinking blue for that wall, I’m trying to say, “My current thoughts are that blue would be a good color, but I might think differently later.”

This agrees with your views on the temporary nature of How are you spelling that? Even though the spelling is not temporary, it seems to be one of the ways language use is changing.

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I think the the way they asked infers that they recognize the name, and respecting the possible uniqueness of its spelling (if any). I think asking "how do you spell your name" almost sounds like "i don't even know what you said, please spell it", almost as if it were asked by a clerk at the DMV.

  • That would work, except “How are you spelling your last name?” doesn’t sound more like they recognise it than “How do you spell your last name?”, at least not to me. They mean the exact same thing to me, except the latter in a rather unnatural way. If I someone told me their name was, say, Sarah on the phone and I wanted to make sure I got the right spelling, I would either say, “With an h?” or ask, “And you spell it..?”, slightly emphasising ‘you’. I would certainly never think to ask in the progressive present. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 3 '15 at 15:59
  • taking the question as asked, referring to the parts in bold-- the question seemed to point to the difference between "the name" vs "your name". The use of "the" is the point i'm making. – user123942 Jun 3 '15 at 16:19
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I imagine it might be more a matter of pride than anything else. The question "How do you spell your name?" suggests there is a generally knowable fact, i.e. the way your name is spelled, which the asker does not know. On the other hand, the form "How are you spelling your name?" implies that the spelling of your name is subject to your whim, and therefore the asker can be excused for not knowing.

Put another way, "How do you [do something]?" is the kind of question you'd expect an ignorant child would ask to someone who knows more about the world than they do, establishing the relationship between asker and askee as one similar in subjugation and humility to that of a student and teacher. On the other hand, "How are you (personally) [doing something (lately)]?" implies that the subject of the question is unknowable by any but the askee because it depends on their personal preference and history.

In short, the wording you're asking about might be used to preserve the asker's sense of maturity, intelligence, and pride because they may perceive the more common wording as self-demeaning, at least in this formal context.

I doubt they gave it this much thought though, it's just a plausible explanation for their instinctive use of this wording.

Or maybe it just sounds fancy and they like that.

  • But a polite person is deprecatory of their own importance relative to the person they are asking, are they not? – WS2 Jun 15 '15 at 9:44
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If the speaker thought that what you had pronounced as your surname could have more than one spelling, they would easily ask "How are you spelling that?" because, from the speaker's perspective, what has just been pronounced as your surname may well be spelled differently by others at other times. So the speaker's interest in the spelling is limited to the time of speaking with you, i.e., "now". Hence, the present progressive form over the simple present, I think.

  • But the speaker's implied suggestion in that is that I may spell it differently on different days in the week, which is absurd. Why not simply ask Could you spell that for me?, or How do you spell that, please? – WS2 Jun 15 '15 at 8:21
  • The speaker doesn't really care if you spell your name differently at other times, however unlikely an event that may be to you personally. Indeed, it's not entirely impossible for you to change your spelling the following day. All the speaker cares about is the specific sound associated with your surname can have different spellings. – JK2 Jun 15 '15 at 8:30
  • But I take it as an insult for some character on the phone to suggest I change the spelling of my name from day to day. It seems to me to be disrespectful of my name. – WS2 Jun 15 '15 at 8:40
  • Well, that's not what the "character on the phone" suggests. All they do is just not care about your intention but care about how that specific pronunciation can lead to different spellings from time to time. BTW, what happened to considering the progressive form to be "less brusque and more polite"? :) – JK2 Jun 15 '15 at 8:45
  • The most polite form for me is Could you spell that for me, please. It is an acknowledgement that it is their inability to spell the name that is at fault, and not that I don't seem to have any settled way of spelling my own name. It is altogether more self-deprecatory and polite. – WS2 Jun 15 '15 at 9:36

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