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In a novel I'm reading (「キッチン」 by 吉本{よしもと}ばなな), there's this situation where the door opens and a woman enters the room asking for the main character by name. The main character, being surprised and not knowing the woman, asks her who she is:

失礼ですが、どちら様でしたか?

My question is: why the past form of です is used in 「どちら様でしたか?」? Those two people are standing there talking to each other, so why the past form? Would it be possible to ask 「どちら様ですか?」?

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Is it possible from the context that the main character is saying something like, "pardon me, but who was it [that you just said / that you are looking for]?" –  Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 3 at 23:37
    
@EiríkrÚtlendi Rather not. Replying to this question, the woman who entered the room introduces herself. –  Szymon Jul 3 at 23:42
    
@EiríkrÚtlendi No, どちら様でしたか is very common for asking about someone you (are supposed to) have met before. –  Earthliŋ Jul 3 at 23:43
    
So it's basically a polite version of "pardon me, who were you again?" –  Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 3 at 23:45
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It is the same as example 7 on page 1 of this link (which is also in my last question): hasegawa.berkeley.edu/Papers/Hasegawa99.pdf –  Tim Jul 3 at 23:45

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's used for politeness. Here's what Martin writes in his 1975 Reference Grammar of Japanese, p.603:

Sometimes the perfect is used more for politeness than for time reference: あなたはどなたでした = お名前は何とおっしゃいましたか ‘What did you say your name was?’ (when the person has actually not yet said); 判子をお持ちでしたね ‘You have your chop (= signature-seal) with you, I presume’.

Note that Martin refers to the 〜た form as the "perfect" rather than "past tense" form. This usage of た with present time reference is usually only in questions, as noted by Hasegawa in her paper Tense-Aspect Controversy Revisited: the -ta and -ru forms in Japanese (1999), which was pointed out by Tim in the comments section.

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When you have never met someone (or have no way of knowing the person, e.g. on the phone), どちら様ですか is how to enquire for someone's name/identity. When the circumstances/your memory suggest that you have met before, but you simply don't recall who they are, どちら様でしたか is more natural.

(Note that, by extension, you can also use どちら様でしたか in the first case by defaulting to the situation that you simply didn't remember any encounter, assuming a fault in your memory. Putting yourself (and your family) down is considered polite in many other situations. どちら様でしたか also less direct (it's referring to a possibly hypothetical past event) than どちら様ですか and thus can be considered more polite.)

Here, どちら様でしたか "Excuse me, but who were you again?" is slightly more polite than どちら様ですか "Excuse me, but who are you?", because it allows for the main character to simply not remember the previous encounter.

This is especially true since the circumstances seem to suggest that the main character met the woman before, since she seems confident enough to call him by his name (rather than asking すみませんが、X様ですか).

Asking どちら様ですか is more direct and might be (mis)understood to be carrying the nuance of "I definitely don't know you" suggesting that the woman is rude by not introducing herself first.

In a word, the main character is handling the situation in the most courteous manner possible.

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Your first paragraph is misleading. As per other comments, ta-form can be used even if you don't know the person. The second sentence is true but not relevant here. –  Tim Jul 4 at 10:22
    
@Tim Better? [fill] –  Earthliŋ Jul 4 at 12:28
    
Well, I thought you made some good points but the 1st paragraph (and your answer) gives the impression that you would use る-form in first instance and the た-form only if you thought you remembered the person. I also think the た-form would be used in that situation but is this the only case?: I understood from the Hasegawa paper that this is an example of た-form being used in a non-past sense and た-form is at least equally as acceptable: "[The た-form expresses a] request for the hearer’s confirmation of a fact..normally only in questions". She gives あなたはどなたでしたか as an example. Do you disagree? –  Tim Jul 5 at 0:39
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No, I sort of agree. I just think that using the past tense was originally intended as describing an event in the past, the current usage being an "abuse of past tense", which for various reasons may be considered more polite. As I understand it, using the past tense in asking for confirmation of a fact assumes that the fact has already been established (rather than establishing a new fact here and now). In any case, I would call it an extended/figurative use of the past tense, not a non-past use. –  Earthliŋ Jul 5 at 0:39
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It seems that Japanese grammar originally described aspect not tense and the sense of past/present is a derivative of how these are used...but I am only just trying to grasp the more complicated aspects of this now. (My natural instinct is to agree with your interpretation but if it applies even when they have never met before then there may be something I've missed.) –  Tim Jul 5 at 2:39

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