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  1. #1
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    Default Verb tense: "Did you (or do you) want something?

    How come store clerks always ask "Did you want something?" Since I am buying something now, shouldn't it be a present tense?

    Now I am asking someone if he knows the history - Columbus discovered America? Do I say, "Did you know Columbus discovered America?" or "Do you know Columbus discovered America?"

    Thanks.

    BMO

  2. #2
    RonBee's Avatar
    RonBee is offline Moderator
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    Default Re: Verb tense: "Did you (or do you) want something?

    Quote Originally Posted by bmo
    How come store clerks always ask "Did you want something?" Since I am buying something now, shouldn't it be a present tense?
    I would assume that you must want something or you wouldn't be there. In any event, it doesn't seem like a very polite question. As for why they ask it, I don't know. It would be better to say, Can I help you?"

    Quote Originally Posted by bmo
    Now I am asking someone if he knows the history - Columbus discovered America? Do I say, "Did you know Columbus discovered America?" or "Do you know Columbus discovered America?"
    I think either one is acceptable. (Sometimes we use the past tense when talking about the present.)

    :)

  3. #3
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    If I had just learnt this fact and was surprised because I thought it was somone else, then I'd use the past.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tdol
    If I had just learnt this fact and was surprised because I thought it was somone else, then I'd use the past.
    Thanks.

    BMO

  5. #5
    CitySpeak Guest

    Default Re: Verb tense: "Did you (or do you) want something?

    Quote Originally Posted by bmo
    How come store clerks always ask "Did you want something?" Since I am buying something now, shouldn't it be a present tense?

    Now I am asking someone if he knows the history - Columbus discovered America? Do I say, "Did you know Columbus discovered America?" or "Do you know Columbus discovered America?"

    Thanks.

    BMO

    How come store clerks always ask "Did you want something?" Since I am buying something now, shouldn't it be a present tense? <<

    This I find rather interesting, and it is certainly not uncommon. In many situations, people employed in any type of service industry where they have dealings with customers would use this sort of expression. Using the past is somewhat indirect and would be heard as more polite. It sounds more deferential to the customer. This is not part of English grammar to my knowledge. People do it quite naturally and unconciously. Those that listen don't even give it a second thought when they hear it.

    I hear it often enough. It lacks logic in tense and time, but makes sense when we regard it in a social context. We might also refer to this use of did as "remote" - socially remote meaning more distance between the speaker and the listener.

    At restaurants I hear, "Did you want another drink?", "Did you want to order now?" - and there's more.

    We can look at it this way:

    "Could" can be used as the past of "can". "Could" can also be used to show more politeness.

    We can also view it as follows:

    "Could" is to "can" as "did" is to "do" when speaking of being polite or in some sort of "social" context.
    _____________________________________


    Now I am asking someone if he knows the history - Columbus discovered America? Do I say, "Did you know Columbus discovered America?" or "Do you know Columbus discovered America?" <<<

    Normally, we would say "did" in such a question. We could use "do" for something that happened so long ago in order to be more emphatic. Let's imagine that someone thinks differently.

    2 - Did you know that Columbus discovered America?

    9 - Do you know that Columbus was European and that other people were in America before he ever discovered it? And - Do you know that he very well may not have even been the first European to discover America? It is said that there is evidence that the Vikings were in Canada well before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic.

  6. #6
    CitySpeak Guest

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    Quote Originally Posted by tdol
    If I had just learnt this fact and was surprised because I thought it was somone else, then I'd use the past.

    Speaking of the Columbus question:


    I think it could go either way. I mean - I hear "did" as being used in such a question before "do". I think it could really go either way depending on the speaker.

    However, I do agree that "do" would make more sense to use. But I think most of the time people would choose "did", as they are thinking about something well into the past.

  7. #7
    RonBee's Avatar
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    Default Re: Verb tense: "Did you (or do you) want something?

    Quote Originally Posted by bmo
    How come store clerks always ask "Did you want something?" Since I am buying something now, shouldn't it be a present tense?
    Around here (St. Louis), they say, "Can I help you?" I think that is more polite.

    :)

  8. #8
    CitySpeak Guest

    Default Re: Verb tense: "Did you (or do you) want something?

    Quote Originally Posted by RonBee
    Quote Originally Posted by bmo
    How come store clerks always ask "Did you want something?" Since I am buying something now, shouldn't it be a present tense?
    Around here (St. Louis), they say, "Can I help you?" I think that is more polite.

    :)
    They say that everywhere.

    "Did you want something?" - That can be thought of as a way of finding out if the customer wants to buy something, of course. It's "selling".

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