THIS tough English grammar question was posted recently in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by member Michael E. Galario:
“I can’t help but bring this grammar concern to you. I often hear some of my colleagues in the office saying to customers, ‘We wanted to know if you are already in the position to pay the full balance.’
“I couldn’t understand why some of them use the past form ‘wanted’ instead of the present form ‘want.’ Are they correct in using this? For me, it is a faultily crafted sentence. The desire to know something should be in the present form as the representative is telling/explaining to the customer the reason why he/she is being called. Moreover, even if the instance of calling in the past is in question, still the sentence isn’t right. The sentence needs to be corrected to ‘We called you yesterday as we wanted to know if you were already in the position to pay the full balance.’
“Following the sequence-of-tenses rule, the above statement doesn’t adhere to the rule that states, ‘If the independent clause is in the past, the dependent clause should be either in past or past perfect depending on the sense that the speaker/writer would like to convey.’ An exception to this rule is when the sentence in the dependent clause is a general truth.
“May I know your stand on this, sir?”
My reply to Michael:
Introductory clauses like “We wanted to know…” or “We wanted to let you know…” are formal idiomatic crutches used by some institutions to attenuate the sting of what would otherwise be perceived by the person being addressed as overly officious, aggressive, or impolite statements.
Normally, the use of the past-tense form “wanted” is meant to soften the overly direct, in-the-moment frontal blow of declarations delivered in the present-tense “want,” as in
“We want to know if you are already in the position to pay the full balance.” Grammar-perfect as it is, this indirect question in the present tense sounds too threatening, as if there’s a built-in but unspoken “or else” coda to it. The harshness of such language is greatly diminished when the statement is framed in the past tense: “We wanted to know if you are already in the position to pay the full balance.”
It’s true that using the “We wanted to know…” introductory clause in such sentences can be mistakenly perceived as a violation of the normal sequence-of-tenses rule in reported or indirect speech, which provides that when the reporting verb is in the past tense, the tense of the reported utterance itself takes one step back from the present into the past.
Grammatically and structurally, however, sentences prefaced by a “We wanted to…” clause are not reported speech or indirect speech at all. The verb “want,” which means “to have a need or feel a need,” does not belong to the league of the reporting verbs “said,” “reported,” “announce,” “declare,” and “explain.” As such, “We wanted to…” performs not a reporting but an introductory function to the subordinate clause that follows it: “We wanted to know if you are already in the position to pay the full balance.”
It is grammatically perfect in every way.
There are ways to make “We wanted to know…” statements more concise and pleasant. I’m afraid, though, that the following reconstruction you suggested for better grammar and factual accuracy is a step in the wrong direction: “We called you yesterday as we wanted to know if you were already in the position to pay the full balance.” In your quest for better grammar and factual accuracy, the sentence has become wordier, more complex, more roundabout.
Here’s a forthright, less officious construction that definitely won’t ruffle the listener’s feathers: “Please let us know if you can already pay the full balance.”
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