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My partner frequently asks me questions that, when read literally, are questions about the past, but in intent and intended response are actually conditional questions:

  • Did you have any thoughts about dinner?
  • Did you want to have coffee?

...where the intent is not merely to inquire about the preferences I have established prior to the time of questioning, but also about what my preference might be at the time of questioning. "Would you have any thoughts..." or "Did, or would, you have any thoughts..." might also capture intent, but awkwardly.

I'm quite literal so I've had to train myself out of interpreting "did" as a past tense question of fact, but it occurred to me that it might be a regionalism or other speech pattern where there's a kind of merger going on between "did" and "would", or other shift where "did" is used conditionally in casual settings, maybe in cases where there's the possibility that the answer might have been determined in the past, but also might not have. Even in my examples above, "would" does feel a bit stuffy and formal by comparison, but I've never used "did" this way myself.

Does this interpretation make sense idiomatically outside of the individual context of my partner? Does anyone know if there is any regionalism in play? My partner comes from a family that has lived in Connecticut for generations. My family is mostly from the midwest and south.

Please feel free to correct me if I am misapplying "conditional" or can otherwise better describe the usage here, I will update as I can!

Also, unfortunately I don't have the gift of search terms on this one, so I haven't been able to find any discussion of it elsewhere, but let me know if I can add any research or context.

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  • 2
    This use of do in the past to inquire is the basis for an observational joke I once heard. The waiter comes to the table after the main course and asks the customer "Did you want dessert?" The customer replies "I still do."
    – DjinTonic
    Jul 7, 2023 at 14:38
  • Validation! This also makes me wonder if functionally, the substitution might me more accurately described as substituting "did" for "do"? Or perhaps "do + would = did" might be a logic at play. Jul 7, 2023 at 14:43
  • A fair proportion of Did you want fries with that? are actually metaphorical. Jul 7, 2023 at 15:12
  • I don't find this the least bit strange but I did also grow up in Connecticut. Curious
    – Casey
    Sep 28, 2023 at 0:32

1 Answer 1

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This use of the past is called "attitudinal past" in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk et al.); the present can be used but the past introduces an element of politeness.

(CoGEL § 4.16) Meanings of the past tense with reference to present and future time

Just as the simple present does not always refer to present time, so the past tense is not always confined to past time reference. There are again three special meanings to mention:

(a) In INDIRECT SPEECH (or INDIRECT THOUGHT) […]
(b) The ATTITUDINAL PAST, used with verbs expressing volition or mental state, reflects the tentative attitude of the speaker, rather than past time. In the following pairs, both the present and past tenses refer to a present state of mind, but the latter is somewhat more polite:
• Do/Did you want to see me now?
• I wonder/wondered if you could help us.
(c) The HYPOTHETICAL PAST […]

A matter of context (addition)

I am at a complete loss as far as providing the least information on regional practices concerning this usage, but I think there is a matter of context relative to it that is not mentioned in CoGEL, and the principle that became apparent to me in connection with this matter never seemed to be contradicted in all the dialogue I could hear and read. Let's narrow it down to examples.

Example

Person A is conversing on the telephone with person B and has told B that he is planning on meeting him sometime in the future; the conversation, as it goes on, is being diverted on various subjects, without anything having been settled about the meeting. Then B has a choice of tense between present and past if he wishes to ask about the date when the meeting would be convenient. (The present is the so-called "state present", which is used for actions or conditions that were true for an indefinite period of time in the past, that remain true now and that will remain true for an indefinite time period in the future. It is hence understood that the possibility of using the past makes sense.) For instance, he can say "When do you want us to meet?" or "When did you want us to meet?". It is even possible that a date has been arranged in the conversation that precedes but forgotten by B, or at worst, the mere insinuation of a possible meeting has been made (by A, important), and those cases allow still for the same choice. The gist of the matter is that there must be a background in the context in which the question finds a justification. Otherwise only the present is correct ; if B wishes to use a more polite form, B must use something else than the past (would). But that is not all; if the idea of a meeting is B's, and even if the idea was formulated by B at the beginning of the conversation, B has to use the present, which is now the "instantaneous present" (action or state begun and terminated approximately at the time of speech).

Other example

(CoGEL § 14.34 Note) [b] Backshift normally occurs in the subordinate clause after an attitudinal past used for politeness:
• What did you say your name was?

In this example also it is clear that the name has been given to the speaker at some time in the verbal exchange. We understand also that if this is not the case, then "is" has to be used instead of "was".

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  • Yes, it can add a layer of politeness to ask about a past thought rather than a decision on the spot. It's easier to confess to that thought than to say you want to right now. Jul 7, 2023 at 14:59
  • It's rare that I CV a question then UV an answer. It would probably be best to merge the threads. Jul 7, 2023 at 15:00
  • @EdwinAshworth I am a bit new to posting questions, how does merging the threads work? I agree that this answer is more useful and precise than anything on the other thread so my answer to "does this answer your question" is no, ultimately, but that is only my literal response and not my practical response to merging :D I also would still love to know if people have a regional slant on usage... my question is a bit more detailed. Open to doing whatever makes the most sense! Jul 7, 2023 at 15:27
  • @Michelle Only mods have that magic power. // CGEL would probably point out any significant regional variations in usage, though my impression is that Brits tend to be more given to hedging (not the duplicitous variety!) than the more forthright Americans. Brits have to be wary of judging Americans as brash, and Americans of judging Brits mealy-mouthed. Of course, it is easy to over-generalise. Jul 7, 2023 at 16:15
  • @EdwinAshworth I think the question and this answer are much more detailed and useful than the older, so-called, original post.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 8, 2023 at 7:43

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