I am wondering why the speaker used past tense in this situation:
I telephoned someone today and that person forgot my name and then said "What was your name?"
Why did she use past tense "was" ?
The answer is related to the questionable custom of 'backshifting tense', that is using past tense, in indirect speech.
A tells B "I am in Brazil." (direct speech)
B says 'A said he was in Brazil.' (indirect speech)
"What was your name?" (= 'What did you say your name was?') is related to the above.
It makes more sense to say '(Sorry I forgot.) What is your name?' After all, your name has not changed.
I'm afraid I disagree. There is no backshifting here, since no reporting of speech is taking place: the sentence in question is a simple main clause.
This use of the past tense tends to occur when information has been supplied but simply forgotten by the speaker. The speaker uses the verb form as a kind of polite device to acknowledge that the error is his/hers and not that of the addressee.
If, however, the question were embedded as indirect speech, then
What did you say your name was?
would certainly be the correct standard form.
I agree with Philo2009 that it's a question of politeness as the person is asking again:
What's your name? = The first time of asking
What was your name? = I have already asked but am asking again.
That way, it can be taken as "What IS...." or "What WAS....."
However, as far as usual English is concerned, I would always say "What was your name?" if I was asking for a second time. I can't entirely explain why, it's just what we say!
Last edited by 2006; 10-Apr-2010 at 06:30.