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  #1 (permalink)  
Unread Jul 22nd, 2012, 07:16 pm
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Default tense confusion

yesterday I discussed an English question with two English teachers who are not native speakers. They gave me different answers to my question, and I hope you can help me.

Last edited by brian99 : Sep 27th, 2013 at 03:31 am.
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Unread Jul 23rd, 2012, 02:42 am
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Default Re: tense confusion

It always, always, always depends on the context - you can never decide from a single sentence. Grammar is meaning - different forms give us the chance to express different semantic concepts (which you yourself point out), so the choice of form depends entirely on the meaning that the speaker wishes to express. So here for instance :

- past simple verbs express the idea that an event is finished, over and done with. Is this what the speaker wants to imply? Eg in this example, the speaker wants to emphasise that the previous agreement is no longer valid - it's "over and done with":
A : Are you helping with the Sports Day on Friday?
B . No.
A: David thinks you are.
B: Yes, well... I agreed to do it previously, but my mother's in hospital and I have to go and visit her. I haven't seen David recently so he doesn't know. I must phone him.


Here, the agreement is finished - it's no longer valid, so s/he chooses the sinmple past.

Some authentic examples, all from the BBC website .

Weapons that they previously agreed not to create in exchange for aid.
...some member countries still fall short of criteria they previously agreed to.
They now blame the UK government for turning a blind eye to an issue they initially agreed to defend.


The present perfect, on the other hand, combines past and present. So if an agreement made in the past is still valid in the present, the speaker may choose that form. In this example, the speaker is emphasising that the past agreement still holds in the present:

A: OK, Can I start the meeting by summarising the things that we have previously agreed to do? And then we'll move on. We said that we would use a third of the budget...

Some authenitic examples from the BBC and British Government websites :

The US has previously agreed there can be no further easing of relations between the two countries until he is released.
Unless the licensing section has previously agreed in writing that an alternative scale plan is acceptable the ...
Mr Bashir has previously agreed to the existing AU force being beefed up, but questions such as the size of the force and who would lead it have not yet been settled.
...most of the parties have initially agreed and there is a potential developer on board


You always need to look at the meanings expressed by the form and then ask what meaning the speaker/writer wanted to convey in that specific situation. it's that which will govern the choice of form.
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  #3 (permalink)  
Unread Jul 25th, 2012, 08:05 pm
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Default Re: tense confusion

thank you very much!

Last edited by brian99 : Sep 27th, 2013 at 03:37 am.
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Unread Jul 26th, 2012, 09:05 am
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Default Re: tense confusion

All languages have grammar, and when I talk about form/grammar I don't just mean verb forms. What I'm arguing against is the view that choice of form is governed by some random grammatical rule. It's not - as I said, grammatical forms express meanings, and the form chosen will reflect the meaning that the speaker/writer wants to express. and that depends on the context. The sentence you quoted was a perfect example of that, but it would be true of any grammatical "rule" - whether verb forms or not, English or not.

For example, a dictionary will tell you that the word "piano" is "countable" and the "rule" for uncountables will tell you that this means it can be used with a/an + singular or plural but not "some". Which would suggest that a phrase which used the expression "some piano" was "incorrect".

But now look at it from the "grammar is meaning" perspective. That would say that grammar gives us the choice of categorising objects as countable or uncountable. If we choose to categorise them as countable we'll use a/an + singular or plural, and if we choose to categorise them as uncountable we'll choose some + singular. We're not constrained by a "rule" - rather we are able to use the grammatical distinction to express the meaning we wish to.


Now, when we talk about pianos we usually see them as single objects, so generally we choose to categorise them as countable - I bought a piano yesterday. But that doesn't mean that piano "can't" be an uncountable noun or that it's "incorrect" to use it as such. Change the context and the meaning you want to express may change radically. Imagine a children's book which has as characters a mummy termite and a baby termite. For them the piano is food - and we genrally see food as uncountable masses - think about cheese, chocolate, bread etc. So in the book, when the baby termite is hungry, the mummy says to him : Come into the sitting room and have some piano. There's nothing "incorrect" about this - it's a logical application of the grammatical distinction based on the meaning the speaker wants to express.
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Unread Jul 27th, 2012, 09:14 pm
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Default Re: tense confusion

I couldn't agree more.

Last edited by brian99 : Sep 27th, 2013 at 03:38 am.
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