Episode 334: August 30, 2012
by Neal Whitman
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A listener named Becky had a question about present and past tense. She wanted to know which of the following was correct: “The girl who was next to me was named Stephanie,” or “The girl who was next to me is named Stephanie.”
I’m assuming that the Stephanie she’s talking about is someone who Becky knows is still alive and still named Stephanie. On the one hand, she wants to use the past tense because the other verb in the sentence is in the past tense, and she doesn’t want to switch tenses needlessly. On the other hand, if it’s still true that that girl is named Stephanie, wouldn’t she want to use the present tense?
They Used to Make the Best Milkshakes
Becky’s question reminds me of a radio commercial I heard years ago. I’ll just slip into the historical present tense to recount their conversation to tell you about it. An older man and probably his grandson are talking about a local ice cream shop. The grandfather says, “They used to make the best milkshakes,” and he reminisces about just how good those shakes were. Then he says, “In fact, let’s go get one right now!” The grandson says, “Wait a minute! You said they used to make the best shakes.” The grandfather replies, “Yep! And they still do.”
Her name is still Stephanie, but the story happened in the past.
Did the grandfather lie? I think we can agree that he didn’t lie in a strict sense, but he certainly misled and confused his grandson—and the radio audience, too, which was the whole point. It forced us to take special note of the fact that the ice cream place still made milkshakes. Actually, the place they were advertising is still in business, and it still makes milkshakes, so should I have said, “the fact that the ice cream place still makes milkshakes”?
The point that Becky’s question and the radio commercial illustrate is that using the past tense can convey messages other than just that something was true in the past. Linguists call these implicatures: messages that go beyond the strict meaning of a phrase or sentence.
Here’s another example. If your friend from two states away calls you and says, “I’ll be in town next month,” and you understand that he wants to get together with you while he’s in town, that’s an implicature. He didn’t say, “Let’s get together.” You just know.
If Aardvark tells Squiggly, “Red ants taste the best,” Aardvark is implicating that he has eaten red ants, even though he hasn’t said as much.
Many implicatures are driven by a principle of relevance, first formulated by the philosopher H. P. Grice. The principle is that if someone tells you something, you can assume that it has some relevance to the conversation. If the statement itself doesn’t seem to be relevant, then you look for additional intended meanings that might make it relevant.
Here’s how the principle of relevance applies to implicatures and the past tense, as stated by linguist Bernard Comrie in his book titled simply Tense:
[T]he past tense only locates the situation in the past, without saying anything about whether that situation continues to the present or into the future, although there is often a conversational implicature that it does not…. This last part follows from Grice’s maxim of [relevance], in that, other things being equal, statements about the present are more relevant than those about the other times, so that the use of a form explicitly locating a situation in the past suggests that the situation does not hold at the present.”(1)
Many times, implicatures do useful work for you. For example, when I was reading a novel and the narrator said about a woman, “I loved her,” I took his message that the character was doomed, and read more, wanting to know how and why she died. The author used the principle of relevance skillfully. In the radio commercial, the grandfather violated this principle by using a past tense form when he knew full well that he could use the present tense. Confusion ensued.
Another important thing about implicatures is that they can be canceled without contradicting what has been said. For example, if your friend who’s coming in to town is actually kind of a jerk, he might add, “But I don’t want to get together with you.” Regarding how red ants taste, Aardvark might continue, “At least, that’s what I hear. I’ve never eaten red ants.” And the grandfather playfully canceled his milkshake implicature when he said, “Yep! They still do.”
So let’s get back to Becky’s example. She is clearly worried about accidentally implicating that Stephanie is dead or maybe named something else now. So would her audience infer such a thing?
If I were reading or listening to a story, told in the past tense, and came to the sentence “The girl who was next to me was named Stephanie,” my first assumption would probably be that Becky used the past tense simply because the rest of the story was in the past tense, and there was no compelling reason to switch.
But different contexts and even different word choices give different implicatures. If she had written, “The girl who was next to me used to be named Stephanie,” I would assume that Stephanie had changed her name since then. Furthermore, if Becky wrote, “The girl who was next to me is named Stephanie,” she would run the risk that the reader will use the principle of relevance on the choice of present tense. For example, I might think, “Hmmm, Becky has switched from past tense to present. She could have just used the past tense and let me assume that the girl is still named Stephanie, but instead, she switched to present tense. Maybe that means that Stephanie had a different name at the time this story happened.”
In short, both phrasings are grammatical, and both hold the possibility of unwanted implicatures. One option for Becky is to explicitly cancel it. She could add a parenthetical statement like, “In fact, her name still is Stephanie.” Another option is to try to phrase things in such a way that the implicature never gets off the ground. For example, the grandfather could have said, “Then as now, they made the best milkshakes.” And Becky could write, “The girl who sat next to me was and is named Stephanie.” The trouble with these measures is that the extra words they require may impede the flow of the text and sound clunky. Only you can decide whether they do, and whether that is or isn’t the effect you want.
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.
1. Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Tense. Cambridge University Press, pp. 41-42.