Today we’re going to talk about unusual sentences you may have heard from people in customer service. So if you’ve ever wondered why someone behind the counter says, “Did you want cream in your coffee?” instead of “Do you want cream in your coffee?” or “I can help who’s next” instead of “I can help whoever’s next,” stay tuned.
Why Do People Use the Past Tense?
Using the past tense can sound more polite.
Regarding the question Did you want cream in your coffee?, a listener named Tullius writes that when he is asked this question, he thinks to himself, “When? Two seconds ago? I don’t remember, but I do [want cream] now.” This question about Did you want cream in your coffee? has come up in several places online. In addition to examples involving cream for coffee, people have complained about baristas asking, “Did you want a tall or a venti?”(1); store cashiers asking, “Did you need a bag?”; and sales staff asking, “Were you looking for something in particular?” (2) In all the situations, it would make sense to use the present tense: Do you want cream?, Do you want a tall or a venti?, Do you need a bag?, and Are you looking for something in particular?
The complaint is the same one Tullius had: Using the past tense carries the message that whether you wanted these things or not at some earlier time, you don’t now, in which case, why is the customer service worker even asking? This idea came up in episode 334, on using the past tense to say things such as, “The girl sitting next to me was named Stephanie,” even if the girl’s name presumably still is Stephanie.
Past Tense Can Indicate Uncertainty
However, as we discussed in that episode, the past tense has more functions than just indicating past time. In particular, it can allow us to talk about situations that are unlikely or unreal, a function called modal remoteness. One specialized use of modal remoteness is to show politeness, by phrasing something as if it’s less certain. For example, the past tense modal verbs could and would do this in the questions Could you do me a favor? and Would you like some dessert?
Similarly, the past tense auxiliary verbs did and were in our retail-related examples sound more polite than the present-tense versions because they’re not as in-your-face as the present-tense questions, which directly ask a customer about the here and now. Even though the customer-service worker is trying to help the customer, a direct question has a greater chance of being perceived as a pushy suggestion or as impatience: “Do you want cream or not? Hurry up and make up your mind; I have other customers, you know!”
Tullius had another comment about how some customer-service workers phrase things. He wrote, “I was recently asked at a popular sub sandwich chain, ‘Is it toasted?’ Plainly not, I thought, but wishing to be charitable, replied ‘Please.’ ” In other words, he was expecting something like Would you like it toasted? In a comment on a linguistics blog, a reader named Dan felt the same way, writing, “I’d say ‘I’ll have a turkey sandwich,’ and they’d respond, ‘What’s on it?’ And I’d be thinking, what do you mean ‘What’s on it?’? Nothing’s on it yet; you haven’t even started making it! Of course they meant ‘What would you like on it?’, but that would take too long to say….” (3)
We Have a Tendency To Shorten Things We Say Often
One theory is that these phrases are just an effect of saying something very frequently, the way phrases such as to make a long story short become simply long story short. As Dan noted later in his comment:
I think the lesson here is that anyone who has to say the same phrase 7000 times a day for several years is going to start trimming out the less-grammatically-mandatory bits. (Or, if they’re required by company policy to use an exact phrase, they’ll start trimming out the less phonetically-mandatory bits.)
Why Do People Ask “Can I Help Who’s Next”?
The blog post that Dan was responding to is actually about our last topic of unusual language in retail: the sentence I can help who’s next. The post was written by linguist Lynne Murphy, on her blog Separated by a Common Language. Can I help who’s next? has been the subject of numerous other online grammar discussions, usually by people who are annoyed that the person behind the counter says this instead of I can help whoever is next, or I can help the person who’s next.