Imagine that your cousin wants to ask his longtime girlfriend to marry him. And he needs you to help him find the right wedding ring. So, he takes you along to the ring shop. At the shop, an employee asks your cousin this:
Were you looking for any style in particular, sir?
But wait – why did the speaker use a past verb form to talk about something that is happening now? Why not say, “Are you looking…?” The answer is that past forms do not always have a past meaning.
In some situations, we use past tenses to describe the present, or even the future. Today, we will explore a few of those situations: expressing urgency; showing uncertainty about plans; making polite requests; and presenting unreal possibilities.
To express urgency
The first one we’ll talk about is expressing urgency.
Picture yourself being on a trip with family. You are in one city and will travel by bus to another. It’s important for your group to get to the bus station on time – and your bus leaves in an hour!
Which of these examples sounds more urgent?
The bus will be there at 12. It’s time to leave.
The bus will be there at 12. It’s time we left.
Right! The second sounds more urgent. The first example just means, “We should leave now.” But the second makes leaving sound more serious. It expresses the idea: “We really should have already left by now.”
We also use the phrase “It’s time…” to say that non-urgent things should have happened already. Here’s an example:
All of my shoes are old! It’s time I bought a new pair.
The speaker uses the past tense “bought” to express something that needs to happen in the near future.
For undecided plans
Next, let’s talk about undecided plans.
There are a few ways to say you have not yet decided what you want to do. For example, you can use modal verbs like “may,” as in “I may drive to the beach this weekend.”
Another way to express uncertainty about plans is to use a past tense verb. Which of these examples sounds more uncertain?
I'm thinking of driving to the beach this weekend.
I was thinking of driving to the beach this weekend.
Both examples show uncertainty, but the past continuous shows more uncertainty. The speaker used “was thinking” to show that she has not made up her mind. Maybe she won’t even go to the beach at all!
Use of the past continuous is common in expressing that plans are indefinite, especially when you use them with the verbs “think” and “consider.”
To be polite
Next, I was wondering if we could talk about being polite.
In English, polite language is less direct than casual language. So, in polite questions and requests, we often use past verb forms, including the past continuous.
Suppose you had trouble with your computer and dropped it off for repairs. A few days later, you call the repair shop to find out if it’s ready. Which of these do you think sounds more polite?
Hi, is my computer ready yet?
Hi, I was wondering if my computer was ready yet.
Exactly – the second is far more polite. The first sentence is too direct and could be taken as rude in some instances.
Note that, in writing, sentences about someone “wondering” something end with a period, not a question mark.
Here’s another example to consider. Which sounds more polite?
Are you free Tuesday? We hope you can watch the baby.
Are you free Tuesday? We were hoping you could watch the baby.
Again, the second sounds more polite with “were hoping” – the past continuous. In the first, use of the simple present “hope” sounds as if the speaker assumes the answer will be yes.
For unreal situations
And now onto unreal situations.
In English, there are a lot of ways to express hypotheticals. And, when the situation presented is unreal or unlikely, we use a past tense to express distance from reality.
We do this, for example, in some conditionals and with statements about wishes. For instance, we would say: “I wish I had a million dollars” not “I wish I have a million dollars.”
Another way to present a hypothetical is with the verb “suppose.” This verb has two main uses: making suggestions and expressing possibility.
When we present unreal or less certain possibilities with “suppose,” we use a past verb form.
In fact, I did so a few minutes ago. Listen to two examples. Which sounds less realistic? You’ll recognize one of them:
Suppose you have trouble with your computer and drop it off for repairs.
Suppose you had trouble with your computer and dropped it off it for repairs.
The second example sounds less likely, as it should; it is only an imaginary situation.
The phrase “what if” has the same meaning as “suppose” and is used in the same way, for example:
What if you had trouble with your computer and dropped it off for repairs.
Well, it’s time I said goodbye. When you get a chance, I was wondering if you could try out the grammar exercise.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
*Some British English speakers use a past tense verb with “suppose” for making suggestions, as in, “Suppose we met for lunch today.”
Practice the grammar you learned today! Change each of the examples below to a past verb form to make it more polite, more urgent, less definite, or more unlikely.
Example: Can you take me to the doctor? (make polite)
Answer: I was wondering if you could take me to the doctor.
I might do some gardening on Sunday. (make less definite)
Is your report finished? (make polite)
It’s very late! It’s time to go to bed. (make more urgent)
Suppose you are a famous athlete. (make unlikely)
I hope you can help me move next week. (make polite)
Words in This Story
tense – n. a form of a verb that is used to show when an action happened
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
uncertainty – n. he quality or state of being doubtful or unknown
casual – adj. suited for ordinary use when you are relaxing; not suited for serious or official speech and writing
drop off – phrasal verb. to take something or a someone to a place and then leave
rude – adj. not having or showing concern or respect for the rights and feelings of other people
assume – v. to think that something is true or probably true without knowing that it is true
hypothetical – n. not real: imagined as an example