Present time, part III: Simple past referring to present

fev 23, 2011 No Comments by

It’s possible to use the past tense to refer to present time in certain situations (very similar to what we do in Portuguese – Eu queria saber qual o horário do próximo ônibus).

For reasons of indirectness and politeness, the past simple and the past continuous may sometimes be used with present-time reference, especially with verbs such as be, hope, look for, think, want, wonder:

Examples:

[on the phone to train timetable enquiries]
Actually I wanted to check if there’s a twenty-five-past train.

[at a cosmetics counter in a store, enquiring about face protection products; A is the customer]
A: What’s the best kind?
B: Probably just a very light liquid.
A: Right. I was looking for one for the cold weather, you know.

[customer in a travel agent’s]
We were wondering about going to Amsterdam. We were wanting to stay in tents or in a caravan or in a bed and breakfast, to sort of see what the different prices were.

[dry cleaner’s store: customer (B) is leaving a jacket for cleaning]
A: Right. What was the name please?
B: Smith.

* Be is not used in the past tense form in this way to comment on the immediate situation:
[dinner guest to host, at the moment of tasting a fish dish]
A: Mm. This fish is delicious. not: This fish was delicious.
B: Thank you. I’m glad you like it.

Adapted from Cambridge Grammar of English.

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