Friday, 26 March 2010

Thoughts on tense

David Isaac has posted an interesting question (on his blog, Tomorrowville) about the use of the word 'could', which put me in mind of another strange example of the use (or abuse) of tense which really bothers me. You go into a shop, and the assistant asks: 'what were you looking for?' or maybe 'did you have anything particular in mind?'

To take this at face value, it looks as though the assistant, in using the past tense, is assuming that you came into the shop wanting a particular item, but now no longer want it. Why do we do this? 'What do you want?' would perhaps sound too peremptory, but 'what did you want?' is plain ridiculous. Does anyone have any asnwers?


  1. Hi Frances - I've always assumed that 'what did you want' implied that you came in wanting something that you haven't been able to find and that, therefore, the wanting is - somehow - in the past, to be rescued, in the present, by the assistant with his/her greater knowledge of where said item might be hiding.

    The other shop-assistant usage which has always struck me as odd - heard only this morning - is 'Yes please?' when encouraging the next customer to come forward. Yes what? If they're going for brevity, 'Next please' takes up no more time. Does 'yes please' imply an interaction that has not taken place where you, the customer, ask if you can be served next?

  2. Hi, Frances--

    I don't often hear "What were you looking for?" I think people over here would find that a bit nosy.

    The use of the past tense is indeed a bit odd, since it suggests they haven't wanted to assist you until they are pretty sure you've failed.

    In these parts, we're more likely to get a vague "Can I help you?" ("May I help you?" would be better, since, unless psychic, the customer has no way of knowing if the salesperson CAN help.)

    "Can I help you find something?" is also popular.

    We don't get "Yes please?" in our lines. But recently the locution around here has become "Can I help who's next?" which is some kind of combination of "Who's next?" and "Can I help you?" but is grating on my ear, which, if they're going to structure it that way, wants them to say "Can I help whoever is next?" (or maybe even "whomsoever?")

    I agree with Alis that a simple "Next, please..." would solve a host of problems.

  3. I get your point, Alis, but I find that even when i'ts been established that you are still looking for whatever it is, the assistant will continue to use the past tense ("did you have a particualr colour in mind?" etc).

    Daivd - maybe you Americans are more sensible than we are!

    Another odd one which occured to me is the use of "if" when issuing instructions (and I first came across this years ago). Eg "if you could just do the shopping/feed the cat/ shoot the squirrels..." but there is sometimes no conclusion as to what will happne "if" the task is completed.

  4. Oh, yeah...we have that "If" instruction over here, too.

    I sort of enjoy it, since it invites me to fill in the implied consequence:

    "If you'd just shut that door..."

    Then I wouldn't have to?

    Then you'd have to open it agains to get out?

    Then maybe we could keep the goblins outside?