greenmanquisiera, quería, querría

As an English speaker in Spain, a recurring doubt arises when we have to ask for or request something politely. We tend to overdo the politeness, directly translating things like 'Please could I have a coffee' or 'I would like a beer'.

Learners are often taught that when asking politely for something, one should use quisiera, e.g. 'Quisiera una cerveza'; however, in Spain the most common way of asking for something in everyday situations, particularly in cafes, bars, shops and restaurants, is to use the present simple, e.g. 'Quiero un café con leche'.  In English we would rarely say 'I want a coffee', unless we are with close friends or family, but in Spanish it is perfectly natural to do so. In fact, it is common to just ask directly, e.g.,  '¿Me pone(s) un café?' or in a familiar environment 'Ponme (póngame) un café' in a polite tone. [See Presente prospectivo and Usted vs. tú]

 

If you do want to come across as being polite, though, the most common option is to use the past imperfect. When making requests or suggestions, the past imperfect has the effect of distancing and attenuating, e.g. 'Quería un café con leche', 'Necesitaba pedirle un favor', etc. 

In English we often use this technique to soften a suggestion or request: 'I was wondering if...', 'I was thinking that...', etc.

 

"El hablante emplea el pasado para mostrar una distancia entre él y el receptor, puesto que está sugiriendo o pidiendo algo y quiere que su petición sea cordial, suavizada. Si se expresa en pasado se pone un espacio entre ambos interlocutores, y la fuerza expresiva es menor y no tan contundente....Quería una botella de vino".1

 

Similar to the imperfect, the conditional can also be used to distance, or soften a request, suggestion or comment. With some verbs the use alternates between the imperfect and the conditional; this is particularly common with poder, querer, necesitar, and desear.2-3

"El llamado condicional de modestía o de cortesía es paralelo al imperfecto de este mismo tipo [...] El rasgo modal que se reconoce en estos usos es característico del condicional de conjetura, pero también corresponde al distanciamiento o la reserva propios de los contextos de cortesía".4

-¿Podría hablar con usted?

-¿No podríamos/podíamos ir en otro momento?

-Yo querría/quería pedirle un favor

-Desearía/deseaba ver al  director

-Necesitaría/necesitaba una copia del informe

-Deberías llamarlo cuanto antes

-Me gustaría saber si la oferta incluye el IVA

 

Finally, the conditional and the imperfect subjunctive alternate with a limited number of verbs in certain situations; namely deber, poder, querer, valer and haber (and sometimes parecer). Having said that, by far the most common option in Spain is quisiera, debería and podría, while habría and hubiera are used in equal measure (see discussion).5-6

-Quisiera/querría hablar con el director, por favor — I would like to speak with the manager, please

-No quisiera/querría meter la pata — I wouldn't want to put my foot in it

-¡Más quisieras/querrías tú! — You should be so lucky!

-Deberías/debieras esforzarte más — You should make more of an effort

-¿Podría/pudiera ser que no quisiera ayudarnos? — Could it be that he didn't want to help us?

-A diferencia de lo que podría/pudiera pensarse — Contrary to what you might think

-Me habría/hubiera gustado ir — I would have liked to go

-Más te valdría/valiera hacer eso — You had better do that

-Parecería/pareciera que no tiene ganas de jugar — It would seem that he doesn't feel like playing

 

So, if you are in a more formal situation that requires extra politeness, and you want to make a good impression and show respect, then quisiera is a good option used along with usted, considered slightly more formal than quería and more commonly heard than querría. [See Usted vs. tú]

 

  • For preterite (quiso) imperfect (quería) contrast, see discussion.

 

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