昨日の記事「#4937. 仮定法過去は発話時点における反実仮想を表わす」 ([2022-11-02-1]) に引き続き，仮定法過去のもう1つの重要な用法を紹介する．語用論的軟化剤 (pragmatic softener) としての働きだ．Taylor (178) より引用する．
The other use of the past tense that I want to consider is also restricted to a small number of contexts. This is the use of the past tense as a pragmatic softener. By choosing the past tense, a speaker can as it were cushion the effect an utterance might have on the addressee. Thus (6b) is a more tactful way of intruding on a person's privacy than (6a):
(6) a. Excuse me, I want to ask you something.
b. Excuse me, I wanted to ask you something.
Tact can also be conveyed by the past tense in association with the progressive aspect:
(7) a. Was there anything else you were wanting?
b. I was wondering if you could help me.
The softening function of the past tense has been conventionalized in the meanings of the past tense modals in English. (8b) and (9b) are felt to be less direct than the (a) sentences; (10b) expresses greater uncertainty than (10a), especially with tonic stress on might; (11b) merely gives advice, while (11a) has the force of a command.
(8) a. Can you help me?
b. Could you help me?
(9) a. Will you help me?
b. Would you help me?
(10) a. John may know.
b. John might know.
(11) a. You shall speak to him.
b. You should speak to him.
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