26 January, 2017
Imagine you are at a café in the United States. The server walks toward you and asks the following question:
Did you want cream for your coffee?
You might ask yourself how you should answer.
What is the server talking about?
Why did the server use a past tense construction, "Did you want?"
Why did the server not say "Do you want cream for your coffee?"
In today's Everyday Grammar, we will try to solve a mystery: why do some Americans use the past tense when they are talking about the present?
Simple Past Tense
The simple past tense is used for actions or situations that happened in the past. These actions or situations are finished.
For example, you might hear a person say, "Did you have a good weekend?"
When they ask this question, they are using the past tense construction, "Did you have...", and they are clearly discussing a recent weekend that is now finished.
They might ask such a question when they see you on Monday or Tuesday – when you are back at work or school, for example.
The traditional use of the simple past tense is this: to note complete actions or situations in the past. This definition is true most of the time in English conversation.
Simple Past Tense with "want" and "need"
However, there are exceptions.
For example, in conversation, Americans often use the simple past tense of the verbs want or need even though they are asking a question about the present.
Let's go back to the American café. You might hear a conversation such as this:
Server: Did you want cream for your coffee?
Customer: No thanks!
Server: Did you need more water?
Customer: Yes, please!
In the conversation, the server uses the simple past tense when asking questions.
It would be grammatically correct to say "Do you want cream for your coffee" or "Do you need more water?"
So, why did the server use the simple past tense instead of the present tense?
Culture and Grammar
Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber are grammar experts. They say that different cultures have different rules about politeness. In American culture, it is often considered polite to speak indirectly.
One way some Americans speak indirectly, Conrad and Biber say, is by using a past tense verb when asking about a present desire. Americans do this by using the construction did + want and did + need.
Even close friends may use this polite form with each other. When they are asking about what another person wants to do, some Americans say, "Did you want to go to the concert?" instead of "Do you want to go to the concert?"
However, speakers do not answer such questions in the simple past tense. The answer usually comes in the verb forms that you would expect -- a simple present, present progressive or future tense verb, for example.
Consider one of our example sentences: "Did you want to go to the concert?"
The response to this question could be in the simple present tense: "No, I don't want to."
Or the response could be in the present progressive: "No, I'm watching a movie."
Or the answer could be in the future tense: "Yes, I'll go to the concert."
You can read more about these verb forms in previous Everyday Grammar stories.
Past tense with other verbs
We started this program with a question: why do some Americans use the past tense when talking about the present?
We have discovered that Americans generally only do this when asking about a present desire or preference – and usually only with the verbs want and need.
In general, Americans do not use the simple past in this way when they are asking for information or using other verbs, such as like, love, prefer, and so on.
This lesson is not designed to give you yet another grammar rule to remember. The point is to show you that native speakers will use language in ways that do not always follow the grammatical definitions that you may have learned about.
Today's lesson will be useful if you are ever listening or speaking to an American. You might be able to ask polite questions, or understand what Americans mean when they ask you a question.
Remember: we have talked about a grammatical structure that you might hear or use in conversation. It does not follow the traditional rules of grammar, so we do not advise that you use it on your next English grammar test!
I'm Alice Bryant.
And I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
*See Conrad and Biber Real Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach to English. Pearson Education. 2009. Pgs. 1-3
Words in This Story
politeness – n. having or showing good manners or respect for other people
concert – n. a public performance of music
preference – n. a feeling of liking or wanting one person or thing more than another person or thing