How to Make Requests and Invitations and State Preferences Using Polite Past Expressions

Have you heard anyone start a request with “I was wondering…” or “I was hoping…” and wanted to know why they used a past form of the verb?

Or have you felt a little uncomfortable when inviting someone to do something because you’re concerned they may already have plans or be busy?

Maybe you had to share an opinion, but at the same time you wanted to show you’re open to other suggestions?

This conversation strategy will help you.

When making requests, invitations, or stating preferences or opinions in both personal and professional settings, we often make our statements or questions more tentative by starting with one of these special past expressions.


How to Keep the Conversation Open

These expressions show hesitation or “hedging,” which is another way of being less direct, more polite, and creating distance between you and your request.

This keeps the conversation open so that the other person can feel comfortable giving his or her response, even if they have to say no or they want to suggest another option.

It’s important to note that these past expressions actually have nothing to do with the past!

They are special expressions we use to show consideration of the other person’s feelings and demonstrate our own flexibility.

Placing our opinions in the past suggests that this desire was just a passing thought, not a urgent request or demand; this gives the other person space to respond without embarrassment or regret.


Using Polite Past Expressions Correctly

Keep in mind that native speakers don’t actually hear the past tense when you use these expressions; instead, they hear the polite distancing of the request.

Because your request is clearly current, these past expressions demonstrate courtesy, another positive effect of politeness.

Here are the past expressions most commonly used by native speakers to introduce requests and invitations and share preferences and opinions:

  • wanted to know
  • wanted to ask
  • wanted to check
  • wanted to say
  • wanted to confirm
  • hoped
  • thought
  • was/were wondering
  • was/were hoping
  • was/were thinking
  • was/were considering
  • was/were assuming
  • was/were looking for

These expressions are commonly combined with other politeness strategies such as using the modal verbs could, would, and might,  making requests with embedded or indirect questions, and using positive adjectives for negative opinions.

Let’s look at some examples of these strategies in practice:

  • I wanted to know if you have this shirt in blue.
  • We thought you might want to come with us.
  • I was wondering if you had any availability next Thursday.
  • We were thinking of releasing the product in May.
  • I was considering ordering Thai food for dinner.

Your Turn

I was wondering how you feel about these expressions now!

I was hoping you could leave me a polite comment below demonstrating your mastery of this advanced conversation skill. ­čśë

For more suggestions, check out my series of articles and video lessons on how to sound more polite.

Ready to communicate more effectively in conversations? Learn communication skills that enable you to connect with other people and engage in natural conversations and professional discussions. Get started here.

2 thoughts on “How to Make Requests and Invitations and State Preferences Using Polite Past Expressions”

  1. Thank you for this useful video/article! I do have one question though. As we all know, we can make requests less direct (and so more polite) by using past verb forms, including the if-clause (e.g. as in “I was wondering if you HAD any availability next Thursday.”) So what about the present tense? (as in “I wanted to know if you HAVE this shirt in blue.”) By using present verb forms in the if-clause, we make our requests, questions etc. more direct?

    Reply
    • Interesting question! The reason I used the present tense in the example is because you would be physically present in the store and interested in the current availability. However, when you’re using a past structure as well as an “if” clause, you can also use “had.” The meaning is pretty much the same, with “had” sounding slightly more tentative. You’ll hear both in natural speech, but “had” is probably more grammatically correct.

      Reply

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