Answers to Questions About Tense

By Mark Nichol

A reader submitted three queries about which verb forms to use to indicate various tenses. Here are the questions and my responses.

1. When do you use have with another verb, and when do you omit it? (For example, “I have said yesterday . . .” vs. “I said yesterday . . . .”) When do you use had? (“I had said yesterday . . . .”)

“I have said yesterday . . .” is erroneous. Use have in this type of construction only when you want to emphasize that the action occurred at an unspecified time: “I have said that I would support the policy.” (This form is called the present perfect tense.) Use had for the past perfect tense, when you want to indicate that something happened before a previous occurrence or a previous time: “I had said that I would support the policy, but that was before I realized it is unfair.”

2. When should I use would as in “I would want to eat there,” as opposed to “I want to eat there”? What is the difference?

“I would want to eat there” implies or precedes a condition: “I would want to eat there if it weren’t so expensive.” “I want to eat there,” by contrast, expresses a simple desire.

3. What’s the difference between “If I can, then I will” and “If I could, then I would”?

“If I can, then I will” expresses a simple desire to accommodate. “If I could, then I would” implies that, because of a condition that is unnamed or not yet named, one is unable to accommodate.

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9 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Tense”

  • teresa patterson

    More often than not I see and hear that people use then and than incorrectly. It is such a simple thing. Then should be used to advance the story or statement… and then. Than most often requires a helper such as … more than, less than, other than.

  • Niki Nkuna

    I’m writing poetry, i see most poets don’t use any full stop and commas at the end of sentences, is it acceptable

  • Robert

    “I had said that I would support the policy, but that was before I realized it is unfair.” Why not “…before I realized it was unfair”?
    Please comment.

  • thebluebird11

    I’m really glad that I’m a native English speaker, because this topic has never made any sense to me, and this post (sorry) hasn’t made it too much clearer, except of course to say that all the woulds/coulds/shoulds are a bit different because they imply a condition of some kind (which may or may not have been met, may be being met, or may or may not be met in the future).
    I think that people who expect to understand all this, including the names for the different tenses and what they comprise (past perfect, future imperfect, etc), need to have learned it when they were wee. I can talk the talk but…I can’t explain it!

  • Chaminda

    I am not a native English speaker, but an “Offshore speaker”. However, I would like to have the following, which appears in your reply to the first question above, explained.

    “I had said that I would support the policy, but that was before I realized it is unfair.”

    In the above sentence, shouldn’t it be “before I realized it WAS unfair” rather than “IS”. Please explain.

    Thanks !

  • Sally

    And then there’s the idiomatic “I wouldn’t want to eat there!” (Because the food is crap, the service is shoddy, the atmosphere is ‘wrong’ – or a dozen other reasons) 🙂

    @Chamina & Robert
    You’re both correct.

    @thebluebird11
    As a native speaker, you’ve probably been manipulating the language quite skilfully since you were about five or six. Knowing the terminology is just icing on the cake!

  • Balut

    How about the use of ”have had” or ”had had” in a sentence? And by the way, thank you for this article.

  • thebluebird11

    @Sally: I’ve been manipulating English since I was 6 MONTHS old! And I prefer icing to cake, so I’m very deprived here in this regard LOL

  • Warsaw Will

    Yes, we often use Present Perfect to talk about the unspecified past – “I’ve been to Paris three times” – but we can also use it with a specified time reference if it is the “current time period”. For example – “I’ve written three emails this morning”, if it is still morning. Similar time references used with Present Perfect are “today, this month, in the last six months” etc. The reason you can’t use”yesterday is not that it is a specified time, but that is a past time period, like “last week, 2012” and “this morning” if it’s now afternoon.

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