+0
Dear all,

First, I would like to thank you in advance for reading this rather lengthy post of mine. I do need to lay out my thinking and reasoning as wide as I can so you can best help me to untangle my own confusion knot.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

After a whole day contemplating on freeing myself from this closet of my mind regarding the choice between grammatical correctness and expressional naturalness, I would like to re-explore the marriage between the simple past tense and present perfect - one more time.

As CalifJim clearly explains in one of his writings, simple past represents time specificity; while present perfect serves time non-specificity (i.e., sometime in the past, including the recent time frame). Obviously, ‘specific’ and ‘non-specific’ cannot be the same. However, in terms of time, a ‘non-specific time set’ does include a ‘specific time element’ (e.g., yesterday afternoon is ‘specific’ in the time scale between the moment of big-bang and this very moment).

In addition to that, we all know a ‘non-specific recent past’ does not include a ‘specific far past’ – distinctively, the former is younger than the later.

Therefore, (I think) the distinction between ‘inclusion’ and ‘separation’ must have contributed to the way people express themselves.

Moreover, when ‘the last’ enters a picture – as we often compare ‘the last year’ with ‘last year’ – even though, it symbolizes the last one of any sequence (i.e., non-specific), its nature conveys time-specificity – all are before it and none is after it.

In comparing to ‘the last’ - ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’ is quality-based and time-unbiased – none or more are before it and none or more are after it; and they are all inferior. However, the superlative ‘the’ does indicate a uniqueness, so when it happens, the time involved is specific!

After the above postulation, I can reason that:

What was the best movie you have ever seen?” means Among all movies you have seen, which one was the best? - and that must be logical and natural since “all movies you have seen” covers the time you saw the first one to the time you saw the last one (time non-specific) and ‘the best’ associates with one point in time (time specific). Time inclusion is in play. (Note that: “What is the movie you have seen best?” makes little sense).

Now comes the expression that raised different opinions in the earlier thread (What's the last movie you've seen?):

What was the last movie you have seen?” – If we think it means “What was the movie that you have seen last?”, then we are trapped in a time conflict because “you have seen last’ combines time non-specific present perfect ‘have seen’ and time specific ‘last’ to support the same object, the movie.

Question #1: Can we interpret What was the last movie you have seen?” to mean Among all movies you have seen, which one was the last? If not, would What was the last movie you have ever seen?” (“ever” is added) allow us to carry out the similar interpretation?

If we allow the interpretation of “ Among …you have ...., which one was the …”, then we can conclude that simple past and present perfect can comingle provided that we look at the sentence from the ‘time inclusion’ point of view.

Now let’s move on to the next angle of this marriage dealing with the name of great grandmothers (GGMs).

If a GGM passed away far back in the past, should we ask “What is her name?” or “What was her name?. Some say, “Name is name - dead or alive!” thus, “What is her name?” is fine. However, some might disagree - “Name is not mortal; it is buried with the dead!” (side note: in some part of the world, the dead is given a new name since people would not dare to call out the old one disrespectfully); thus, they would go with “What was her name?”

For the first set of people, they would prefer this question: “What is the name of the last GGM you have lived with?” For the second set of people, ‘was’ should replace ‘is’.

Question #2: If ‘was’ is the better choice, do we face the same problem like that of “What was the last movie you have seen?”

Let’s compare “What was the last movie you have seen?” and “What was the name of the last GGM you have lived with?” Structurally, the two sentences are very similar, except that ‘have lived’ comes with preposition ‘with’. (I think) that difference must have allowed us to easily accept the second one. Intuitively, we must have associated ‘have lived’ with the GGM and ‘was’ with the name.

In other words, if what I think is acceptable, then the ‘object separation’ gives the sentence its naturalness and logical weight. Meanwhile, it seems odd to us to associate ‘have seen’ with the movie and not with its title! The ‘object uni-identification’ causes us to question. (Side note: sometimes, we have seen a movie and remembered the actors and its story but its title). The difference between ‘time inclusion’ or ‘time separation’ in fact enters into our mind as a byproduct but not the cause for our confusion. Take a look at this question: "What is the title of the last movie you have played with?" Can you tell any difference between that one and "What is the name of the last GGM you have lived with?"

Finally, for those of us who believe the addition of the word ‘recently’ would provide the ‘time separation’ between ‘recently’ (present perfect) and ‘was’ (simple past) in order to resolve the seemingly faulty logic, (I think) it would not make any difference. In short, if we can convey “What was the movie you have seen recently called?” to mean “Tell me about the movie you have seen recently – What was it called?”, then it should be acceptable – the movie becomes a whole, and the title is a part.

That’s it! Thank you all for trying to understand what has been going on in my mind. I am anxiously looking forward to your comments since I hope that your generosity will help me advance to a new gate on my learning journey.

Best Regards.
Hoa Thai
Comments  
Hoa Thai
Dear all,

First, I would like to thank you in advance for reading this rather lengthy post of mine. I do need to lay out my thinking and reasoning as wide as I can so you can best help me to untangle my own confusion knot.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

After a whole day contemplating on freeing myself from this closet of my mind regarding the choice between grammatical correctness and expressional naturalness, I would like to re-explore the marriage between the simple past tense and present perfect - one more time.

As CalifJim clearly explains in one of his writings, simple past represents time specificity; while present perfect serves time non-specificity (i.e., sometime in the past, including the recent time frame). Obviously, ‘specific’ and ‘non-specific’ cannot be the same. However, in terms of time, a ‘non-specific time set’ does include a ‘specific time element’ (e.g., yesterday afternoon is ‘specific’ in the time scale between the moment of big-bang and this very moment).

In addition to that, we all know a ‘non-specific recent past’ does not include a ‘specific far past’ – distinctively, the former is younger than the later.

Therefore, (I think) the distinction between ‘inclusion’ and ‘separation’ must have contributed to the way people express themselves.

Moreover, when ‘the last’ enters a picture – as we often compare ‘the last year’ with ‘last year’ – even though, it symbolizes the last one of any sequence (i.e., non-specific), its nature conveys time-specificity – all are before it and none is after it.

In comparing to ‘the last’ - ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’ is quality-based and time-unbiased – none or more are before it and none or more are after it; and they are all inferior. However, the superlative ‘the’ does indicate a uniqueness, so when it happens, the time involved is specific!

After the above postulation, I can reason that:

What was the best movie you have ever seen?” means Among all movies you have seen, which one was the best? - and that must be logical and natural since “all movies you have seen” covers the time you saw the first one to the time you saw the last one (time non-specific) and ‘the best’ associates with one point in time (time specific). Time inclusion is in play. (Note that: “What is the movie you have seen best?” makes little sense).

Now comes the expression that raised different opinions in the earlier thread (What's the last movie you've seen?):

What was the last movie you have seen?” – If we think it means “What was the movie that you have seen last?”, then we are trapped in a time conflict because “you have seen last’ combines time non-specific present perfect ‘have seen’ and time specific ‘last’ to support the same object, the movie.

Question #1: Can we interpret What was the last movie you have seen?” to mean Among all movies you have seen, which one was the last? If not, would What was the last movie you have ever seen?” (“ever” is added) allow us to carry out the similar interpretation?

If we allow the interpretation of “ Among …you have ...., which one was the …”, then we can conclude that simple past and present perfect can comingle provided that we look at the sentence from the ‘time inclusion’ point of view.

Now let’s move on to the next angle of this marriage dealing with the name of great grandmothers (GGMs).

If a GGM passed away far back in the past, should we ask “What is her name?” or “What was her name?. Some say, “Name is name - dead or alive!” thus, “What is her name?” is fine. However, some might disagree - “Name is not mortal; it is buried with the dead!” (side note: in some part of the world, the dead is given a new name since people would not dare to call out the old one disrespectfully); thus, they would go with “What was her name?”

For the first set of people, they would prefer this question: “What is the name of the last GGM you have lived with?” For the second set of people, ‘was’ should replace ‘is’.

Question #2: If ‘was’ is the better choice, do we face the same problem like that of “What was the last movie you have seen?”

Let’s compare “What was the last movie you have seen?” and “What was the name of the last GGM you have lived with?” Structurally, the two sentences are very similar, except that ‘have lived’ comes with preposition ‘with’. (I think) that difference must have allowed us to easily accept the second one. Intuitively, we must have associated ‘have lived’ with the GGM and ‘was’ with the name.

In other words, if what I think is acceptable, then the ‘object separation’ gives the sentence its naturalness and logical weight. Meanwhile, it seems odd to us to associate ‘have seen’ with the movie and not with its title! The ‘object uni-identification’ causes us to question. (Side note: sometimes, we have seen a movie and remembered the actors and its story but its title). The difference between ‘time inclusion’ or ‘time separation’ in fact enters into our mind as a byproduct but not the cause for our confusion. Take a look at this question: "What is the title of the last movie you have played with?" Can you tell any difference between that one and "What is the name of the last GGM you have lived with?"

Finally, for those of us who believe the addition of the word ‘recently’ would provide the ‘time separation’ between ‘recently’ (present perfect) and ‘was’ (simple past) in order to resolve the seemingly faulty logic, (I think) it would not make any difference. In short, if we can convey “What was the movie you have seen recently called?” to mean “Tell me about the movie you have seen recently – What was it called?”, then it should be acceptable – the movie becomes a whole, and the title is a part.

That’s it! Thank you all for trying to understand what has been going on in my mind. I am anxiously looking forward to your comments since I hope that your generosity will help me advance to a new gate on my learning journey.

Best Regards.
Hoa Thai

Hi Hoa Thai,

Let me be the brave one in the attempt to tackle this long thread, if no one already posts a reply by the time I am done with writingEmotion: smile You obviously have a high degree of the English language and I can comfortably say most will agree. But you seem to have been bothered by what had been said in the previous posts about the mixed usage of simple past and present perfect. The problem to me really has more to do with one's logic and persepctive, rather than his grammatical knowledge, and you seems to be stuck at the sentence which you posted 2 days ago. "What was the last movie you have seen?” can not be a viably grammatical sentence no matter how we dress it. The rules I learned told me that simple past and present perfect just can't be married and expected to sound happily together. Consider this sentence "when was the last time you have talked to your ex-husband?". Do you agree or not agree that this is not a sound sentence? If you say "I haven't talked my your ex-husband after the devorce but I e-mailed him", then the conjunction [but] will validate the use of mixed tenses. But they can not exist in the same frame of sentence sturcture.

Your questions:

Question #1: Can we interpret What was the last movie you have seen?” to mean Among all movies you have seen, which one was the last? I don't think so, "what" usually requires a defined answer and "among" offers alternatives in my opinion. If not, would What was the last movie you have ever seen?” (“ever” is added) allow us to carry out the similar interpretation? "Ever" in this context does not sound right. "Last" is an adjective, but not a comparative adjective as in "What was / is the most scary/ borning/ bloody movie [that] you have ever seen?" Because we are associating movies by their names which do not change even as time passed, we can use either past or present [was/ is] to refer to the movies with resepct to the rest of the context in present perfect.

By the same token, we often hear people say soemthing like: "what was the lady's name we have just met?" which is fine either with [was / is] becasue "was" paints a picture of the time she was introduced to you, and "is" paints a picture of her face with her name in general.

Other than that, I really don't know how to break it down further.

And regarding ” recently”…

It’s not a proprietary word to mean present perfect, if there is any hint / notion that this is the case, it’s not true.

"I recently took a business trip to . Simple past with no defined time. “Recently” here defined it only as short time ago.—Ok


Hello Goodman,

You are really THE BRAVE ONE! Emotion: smile – Thank you for sharing your words. Without yours, I thought maybe I trespassed some secret ground or people might have felt the answer is so obvious not worth spending more time for a further discussion.

The reason I explore this issue again is not about finding a viable grammar rule to justify the validity of the phrase “What was the last movie you have seen?” In this case, if I must pick either is or was, I would go with is , which is more sensible.

The question that I ask myself to resolve is “why some people use was?” We could say, ‘perhaps they don’t know better’- or when we notice ‘some’ represents a huge number, we might say, ‘it is a bad habit’. As you might have noticed, even a reputable site like BBC’s teaching English, which I cited earlier in our previous thread, posed the question in a different way: “Think of a film you have seen recently, what was it called?” However, that too violates your statement, “The rules I learned told me that simple past and present perfect just can't be married and expected to sound happily together.”

Question #1: If the BBC’s sentence is bad, how would you rephrase it?

Question #2: If the BBC’s sentence is an exception, then what is the reason behind it? Is it because ‘call’ was used instead of ‘see’ , or ‘a film’ is used instead of ‘the last film’?

I am sorry for not being fair by not answering your question first but presenting you with my new ones! Now, let me go over yours.

You asked, “Consider this sentence ‘when was the last time you have talked to your ex-husband?’. Do you agree or not agree that this is not a sound sentence?” My answer: Agree! However, my reason is not because 'was cannot be with have talked, but the culprit is the last time. Why do I think so?

As I stated in my original post, if we equate that sentence to “What was the time you have talked to your husband last?” then we are trapped in the time conflict! Moreover, “ … was the last time you have talked … “ forces us to associate one single object with both time specificity and time non-specificity.

Does my answer seem to be self-conflicting if the last time is replaced with the last movie?

The answer to that is: “it depends”. Why so?

With the interpretation that seeing the last movie and seeing its title are the same, it faces the same problem that your sentence does (i.e., the movie and its title are one).

However, with the interpretation that seeing the last movie represents experiencing / enjoying the last movie, it might get by – What was the last movie you have enjoyed seeing with your wife? Think of this as “Tell me about the last movie you have enjoyed seeing with your wife, what was its title?

In addition, if the question is: “What was the title of the last movie you have seen?” ,we can still paraphrase it – “Tell me about the last movie you have seen, what was its title?” (and you can even go on asking ‘Who was in it?, Who directed it? so on and so forth). If that is how people equate the two, thinking “What was the last movie you have seen?” means “What was the title of the last movie you have seen?” (i.e., elliptical ‘the title of’); then I can see the reason for their using was.

Nevertheless, applying the paraphrasing technique to your sentence – “Tell me about the last time you have talked to your ex-husband, what was the time? would present a time conflict, wouldn’t you think?

Now if we add ever to the question – “What was the last movie you have ever seen?” to mean “What was the last movie among all the movies you have ever seen” – then it would further make sense. “… the last movie among all the movies …” is redundant; thus, “among all the movies” is a natural ellipsis.

So what have I been trying to form here? I don’t quite know yet – but I am sure getting close. One thing is for sure to me now is that: we can certainly experience the seemingly odd couple living in harmony. There are other factors that force their separation and I like to know what they are (all of them). Or do you still think they are fire and water - and no one else is responsible?

By the way, I agree with you about ‘recently’! That half-truth about its association with present perfect would cause pain to ESL learners.

Now your turn! Emotion: smile

Site Hint: Check out our list of pronunciation videos.
Hello, Hoa Thai.

Although Goodman outstripped me and deserved the brave one's laurels, I'd like to add some of the comments which I had started typing yesterday in the university, but hadn't time to finish...

Your reasonong is interesting but not fault-less.

«As CalifJim clearly explains in one of his writings, simple past represents time specificity; while present perfect serves time non-specificity (i.e., sometime in the past, including the recent time frame). Obviously, ‘specific’ and ‘non-specific’ cannot be the same.»

There's more to these tenses than this specifity/non-specifity dichotomy. I really prefer to do use actuality (connection of the action, or of a result there of, to the present) as the main (but not the only) difference.

This famous rule requireing Past Simple when a time is declared follows from it, because declaration of time indicates the speaker's focus on time rather than result.

«However, in terms of time, a ‘non-specific time set’ does (Ant: I'd say "may include") include a ‘specific time element’»

Don't get you.
1. In 1999 (is it specific?)
2. Since last month (specific?)
Which includes which?

«In addition to that, we all know a ‘non-specific recent past’ does not include a ‘specific far past’ – distinctively, the former is younger than the later.»

Is the word "far" so important?

1. We have been friends since 1995
2. I found it two minutes ago.

«In comparing to ‘the last’ - ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’ is quality-based and time-unbiased – none or more are before it and none or more are after it;»

But only the word "last" deals with time. Is that an important difference?

«However, the superlative ‘the’ does indicate a uniqueness, so when it happens, the time involved is specific!»

Yes!

I had started commenting this paragraph but suddenly found that your following paragraph tells the same:

«“What was the best movie you have ever seen?” means “Among all movies you have seen, which one was the best?” - and that must be logical and natural since “all movies you have seen” covers the time you saw the first one to the time you saw the last one (time non-specific) and ‘the best’ associates with one point in time (time specific). Time inclusion is in play.»

Fully agree, but asking "which one is the best" is also OK, and then it's not an inclusion...

«Can we interpret “What was the last movie you have seen?” to mean “Among all movies you have seen, which one was the last?”»

From the standpoint of formal logic, yes. I don't completely understand Goodman's opinion that "among" may allow for several alternatives. There can be only one last movie (unless one's watching several movies simultaneously...)

If not, would “What was the last movie you have ever seen?” (“ever” is added) allow us to carry out the similar interpretation?»

Well, as Goodman already said, "ever" doesn't work here. But it would work with "the best", "the most scary", e.t.c. Again, I don't understand Goodman's comment: «"Last" is an adjective, but not a comparative adjective» — they all are superlative adjectives, aren't they?

“What was the last movie you have seen?”

Using your logic, it does seem correct, but somehow I can't accept it. The very structure of this sentence with Past Simple in the main clause somehow forces a conflict with the Present Present in the subordinate clause.

The "was" in the main clause imposes a past time frame onto everything subordinated to it.

-----------------------------------------------------------

«As you might have noticed, even a reputable site like BBC’s teaching English, which I cited earlier in our previous thread, posed the question in a different way: “Think of a film you have seen recently, what was it called?”»

It's a pretty good sentence. They probably want the reader to focus on his/her impressions of the movie and they use Past Simple to help him/her "travel" back in time! It's neither bad nor an exception. I'll even say it's a nice example of your term "inclusion".

I wound't like "... what is it called" at all in this case!
Ant_222 “What was the last movie you have seen?” Using your logic, it does seem correct, but somehow I can't accept it.
Hi Ant,

Your instinct and your experiences guide you well!

However, I think you and Goodman could have read me wrong. I am not trying to advocate the use or correctness of the sentence at all. Even my logic could not defend its illogical construct. To me, it is NOT GOOD ENGLISH! (“Good English is English that at present very rarely sparks the expressed or unexpressed reaction “That’s not good English,” either from those who really do know better or from those who merely think they do.” - Edward D. Johnson).

I just want to find out why many people use such a construct with ease. If I can reason it out, I think I might be able to find a key to further understand the intricacies and nuances of the language - peeking into the mind of the speakers per se. Right now, I don’t have that key. Not being a native English speaker, I cannot feel the naturalness that native speakers do. Books, reference guides have been the only resources that I relied on to improve myself. Fortunately, with the presence of Internet, I now have a chance to further explore and I am willing to make a fool of myself, hoping that with others’ help I will use the language better.

Having said all that, I learned one important tip from Clive – he said, “We don't spend ages hesitating before we say such things. If we sense there may be confusion, we often instinctively choose another form of words. Otherwise, the listener may ask us to clarify our statement. Sometimes the listener cares, sometimes they don't even care.”

As an ESL learner, I take that to heart. All of this grammar stuff, learning at my early age, was the impediment of my English advancement.

However, we do need it to save ourselves embarrassment; eventually, we will find the pleasure in using the language and be able to share that with others.

Regarding my finding, I am very close to form my own opinion and will share with you in due course.

All the best,

Hoa Thai
Dear all,

For whatever its worth – Here is my opinion as I promised to deliver:

The issue we have been dealing with here boils down to one question – “In one sentence, grammatically and semantically, could we use both simple past and present perfect for one item?”

Evidently, the example from BBC’s Teaching English site, “Think about a film you have seen recently, what was it called?”, affirmatively answers that question. The non-definitive ‘a film’ associates well with the present perfect ‘have seen’; and it is all right to use was’ to pin down an instance in the past once our mind fixes on the selected item (i.e., simple past).

Since the above sentence is okay, then we can deduct that ‘the verb see or whatever it is’ and the ‘film’ do not contribute to the confusion of our mind. Thus, in the sentence “What was the last movie you have seen?”, the culprit must be the superlative ‘the last’!

When we use the superlative ‘the …‘ , it does not matter what adjective we attach to it - be it ‘last’, ‘best’, ‘worst’, ‘the most..’, etc… we ask our mind to lock on to a moment in time (i.e., simple past). If we follow immediately with a present perfect tense, our minds would usually cry foul! - Why usually but not always?

Apparently, millions of hits from a simple Google search prove that some minds do accept such ungrammatical construct without any reservation. As an example, “What was the best movie you have ever seen?” could be seen in many forums’ questions, blogs, and at Yahoo’s Answer site.

If we accept that the word ‘ever’ , which could mean ‘at any time’ per American Heritage dictionary, could we then see the stressing intention of the minds when they detect a possible time conflict and insert that word between ‘have’ and ‘been’ while ‘among all the movies’ becomes ellipsis (as an after thought)? This is what I think they mean to say: “What was the best movie among all the movies you have ever seen?”

From the naturalness point of view, people don’t pause to think much about grammar, if ‘the best’ is okay then ‘the last’ seems to pose no problem - although the later clearly shows its time-biased nature. However, that naturalness - albeit seemingly ungrammatical - must have been ever permitted unless we find an opportunity to re-validate its correctness. Once we realize that it might cause confusion, we find a different way to clarify / say it and hold on to the refinement. Thus, when the rejected construct is heard / seen again, we raise the flag.

Having thought about this for the last few days, I now tell myself that:

1. The rule that raises the validity (or rather invalidity) of the marriage between simple past and present perfect in one sentence for one item must be re-examined, augmented, and complemented for specific cases. Its generalization fails to include sensible sentences.

2. Sentences that use superlative ‘the …” in this type of construct must not be over-elliptical. (Isn’t that true with every sentence?)

Thank you all,
Hoa Thai
Students: We have free audio pronunciation exercises.
Hello, Hoa Thai.

As always, it's been interesting to read through your post!

«The issue we have been dealing with here boils down to one question – “In one sentence, grammatically and semantically, could we use both simple past and present perfect for one item?”»

I wouldn't say so, because there're different ways of combining these tenses and, as you write below, they should be "re-examined, augmented, and complemented for specific cases".

«Evidently, the example from BBC’s Teaching English site, “Think about a film you have seen recently, what was it called?”, affirmatively answers that question. The non-definitive ‘a film’ associates well with the present perfect ‘have seen’; and it is all right to use ‘was’ to pin down an instance in the past once our mind fixes on the selected item (i.e., simple past).»

Hmmm. What do you think about this:
«Think about the film that you have seen last, what was it called?»

«When we use the superlative ‘the …‘ , it does not matter what adjective we attach to it - be it ‘last’, ‘best’, ‘worst’, ‘the most..’, etc… we ask our mind to lock on to a moment in time (i.e., simple past).»

Yeah, as I said above, and you wrote below, "the last" differs from "the best" and "the worst" in being related to time... And I don't thinks such cinstructions focus us on specific moments of time. Rather, they direct our attention at specific items/things...

«Apparently, millions of hits from a simple Google search prove that some minds do accept such ungrammatical construct without any reservation. As an example, “What was the best movie you have ever seen?” could be seen in many forums’ questions, blogs, and at Yahoo’s Answer site.»

How do you know it's ungrammatical?

«This is what I think they mean to say: “What was the best movie among all the movies you have ever seen?”»

Yes, and I think the "among..." insetrtio may be omitted with _no_ loss in meaning.

«From the naturalness point of view, people don’t pause to think much about grammar...»,

Talking about natives (and very good non-natives)?

«...However, that naturalness - albeit seemingly ungrammatical - must have been ever permitted unless we find an opportunity to re-validate its correctness.»

You English here is too good, I can't follow your thought. Do you mean that the naturalness viewpoint should be preferred unless proven wrong?