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When English is Tense Posted by on Oct 31, 2019 in English Grammar, English Language

In my capacity as Social Media Manager for Transparent Language, I oversee our blogs and our Word of the Day service. These are offered free as a way to help language learners. They are also quite interesting, and I learn a lot from them. I also learn from our subscribers. Many of you make keen observations and offer valuable feedback. Honestly, this community is improving the language learning process literally every day.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

So, when I had a comment cross my desk the other day on an example given on an Italian Word of the Day, it made me stop and think. Here’s what the subscriber, Bruce, wrote:

The English translation is ungrammatical (mixes tenses):

  • “So far, 8,000 tickets were sold for the concert.”

You would say

  • “So far, 8,000 tickets have been sold for the concert.”

In fact, Bruce is absolutely correct. Were signifies the past tense, and have been indicates the present perfect tense. Yet, I had to look at this multiple times because the first example still sounded acceptable. The use of the term so far is what makes the distinction in this case. So far means that tickets are still being sold. Therefore, the use of the present tense is warranted.

Why, then, did it look as though the first example could be acceptable? Because the present perfect is a combination of the verb to have and the past participle. The present perfect tense means that something took place in the past but has proceeded to the current time. In other words, both the correct and incorrect examples above refer to the past. It’s only when taking into account the context that the distinction is clear. Context is always important in English.

Consider the phrase, “I have been consistent in my opinions so far.” This implies that these opinions might change. The future is uncertain.

Contrast that with the phrase, “Until now, I have been consistent in my opinions.” This may sound the same as the previous sentence, but the words until now imply that these opinions have changed.

That’s context.

It’s also important to remember this: English speakers can be lazy. Much of what we read and hear (and speak) is filtered through the need to know. What’s the important information? That 8,000 tickets are sold. The difference between what’s in the past and what is currently happening is a detail that might not, on the surface, be terribly relevant. That’s stupid, I know, but it’s how many of us think. We hear what we want to hear.

But here’s the real problem with the present perfect tense: why call a verb form which is dependent upon the past a present tense? It doesn’t even exist in many languages! Or, rather, it does but isn’t recognized as a present tense. The Spanish pretérito perfecto and the French passé compose basically serve the same grammatical purpose, but they are considered to be structured as a form of past tense. They refer to a very specific time in the past, just as the words so far specifically refer to the recent past until this moment.

The reason that this subject is important is precisely why English is such a maddeningly complex language. Bruce’s absolutely correct observation about a simple sentence drove me crazy. I needed to take a step back and remember that, when it comes to English, nothing is really simple.

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  1. Eduardo:

    Thanks for your very clear explanation about past perfect compared to past tense, pasive voice, in the given example.

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