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ESL forum > Grammar and Linguistics > A question about the past simple:    

A question about the past simple:



Mohamed Hamed
Egypt

A question about the past simple:
 
 
Must I mention specific time in the past simple sentences as in "He found the book last Friday"?
 
Or
 
I can say "He found the book." without mentioning time.

4 Jun 2017      



yanogator
United States

I think British English might view it differently, but in the US, we would definitely say "He found the book."
 
Is Tom still looking for the things he lost?
He is still looking for the umbrella, but he found the book.
 
Bruce 

4 Jun 2017     



Shalottslady
Belgium

In British English you must have a clear time indication showing that the time is over-and-out in order to use a past simple. If there is no clear time indication (not even in the context), then you have to use a present perfect.
 
He found the book last Friday.
BUT: He has found the book.
 
Roald Dahl wrote many beautiful stories. (past simple because he is no longer alive).
J.K. Rowling has written many beautiful stories. (present perfect because she is still alive and no clear time indication).
J.K. Rowling wrote many stories when she was in her twenties. (past simple because she no longer is in her twenties).
 
The present perfect is not as commonly used in American English.
 
I hope this helps.
 

4 Jun 2017     



Mohamed Hamed
Egypt

Thanks for you all.
I really appreciate your help.
 

4 Jun 2017     



ldthemagicman
United Kingdom

Dear Mohamed  Hamed,

I quote from "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language", 2010, written by 5 Professors of English, including David Crystal.

"Meaning of the Past Tense with reference to past time.

 
4.11. As most commonly used, the past tense combines two features of meaning.
 (a) The event/state must have taken place in the past, with a gap between its completion and the present moment.
 (b) The speaker or writer must have in mind a definite time at which the event/state took place.
 
The first of these conditions is most clearly exemplified by a sentence like I stayed in Africa for several months, where the usual implication is that I am no longer in Africa. The second condition is most explicitly shown in co-occurrence relations between the past tense and past time-position adverbials such as last week, in 1932, several weeks ago, yesterday, etc.
 
Freda started school last year/in 1950.
Prices slumped last winter/yesterday.
 
With such adverbials, the simple present or present perfect would be virtually ungrammatical.
 
Freda starts/has started school last year/in 1950
 
It is not necessary, however, for the past tense to be accompanied by an overt indicator of time. All that is required is that the speaker should be able to count on the hearer ´s assumption that he has a specific time in mind. In this respect, the past tense meaning of DEFINITE PAST time is an equivalent, in the verb phrase, of the definite article in the noun phrase. Just as with the definite article, so with the verb phrase, an element of definite meaning may be recoverable from knowledge of (a) the immediate or local situation; (b) the larger situation of ´general knowledge ´; (c) what has been said earlier in the same sentence or text; or (d) what comes later in the same sentence or text".
 
So, Mohamed, to answer your general question: "Must I mention specific time when I use the Past Simple tense?" The answer is "No!"
It is not necessary, however, for the past tense to be accompanied by an overt indicator of time.
A specific, named time is NOT a necessity. 

The first example you give is fine. It is grammatically correct. It DOES mention a specific time. It is what an English speaker could easily say, and be totally understood.
 
The answer to your second question is: "It depends!" Does the hearer understand that the speaker has a specific time in mind, as defined by the knowledge obtained in (a) to (d).
 
If the answer is: "Yes!", then you DON ´T need to give a time.
 
If the answer is: "No!", then you DO need to give a time.
 
I ´m sorry that this so long-winded, but it is not possible to encapsulate precise complicated explanations into a sentence of, for example, 10 words.
 
In the context of the two sentences, the example given by Bruce is excellent. We, the readers, DO understand that the writer has a specific time in mind, as defined by (c). He is writing about a specific time in the past, the time when Tom lost several articles.
 
I hope that I have helped you.
 
Les Douglas 
 

5 Jun 2017     



yanogator
United States

Les,
Your explanation is wonderfully clear and complete, but I must ask if you, as a speaker of British English, would be comfortable saying, "He found the book"? It seems that many others wouldn ´t.
 
In the US, we would say, "He found the book" when we see the situation as an event in the past. He was looking for it and he found it; case closed.
 
We see "He has found the book"  as a statement of a situation affecting the present in some way, as in "He has found the book, so we can stop looking for it now", or "He has found the book, so he can teach his class".
 
Bruce 

5 Jun 2017     



ldthemagicman
United Kingdom

Bruce,
 
The short answer to your question is: "Yes!"
 
As a British English speaker, I have no problem in saying the sentence "He found the book".
 
But, it would have to be in the context of a known, (or implied, or deduced) past time relating to the book and its loss
 
"Tom found the book". ("... that he was looking for", UNSPOKEN, but known, implied, or deduced by both speakers.)
"That ´s good!"
 
But, imagine that someone walked into a room, and said: "I drank a cup of coffee". Up till that moment, no-one had mentioned coffee; no-one had discussed drinks; no-one had asked about drinking habits, and indeed, no-one had mentioned, or implied, any past event whatsoever.
 
I think that, in the UK, someone would probably ask the speaker: "Why did you say that?" or, "What has that to do with anything?" or would say, sarcastically: "That must have been nice for you!"
 
But if the person said: "I´ve drunk a cup of coffee!" the listeners would recognise the statement as having some relevance to the present time " ... and the Doctor told me not to drink coffee!", or something similar.
 
In my opinion, I don ´t think British people would be ´uncomfortable ´ using the Past Simple Tense in the 4 situations described in "Comprehensive Grammar". But other than the use of this word, you are right, because I believe we would tend to use the Present Perfect Tense: "He ´s (He has) found the book that he lost" ... "So finally, we can all relax!"
 
Now, the USA has given its opinion, and the UK has given its opinion.
 
Bruce, it ´s a privilege to know you.
 
Les 

5 Jun 2017     



yanogator
United States

Likewise, Les.
 
In the US, even in the situation you gave, a person would be more likely to say, "I drank a cup of coffee". I just came to the realization of what the difference is. In BE, you need a solid context for using the simple past. In AE, we need a solid connection to the present to use the present perfect. That is quite a cultural difference. I ´ll bet someone could get a PhD (in Linguistic Anthropology or something) out of that. However, I think that the more educated a person is in the US, the more likely that person is to use the present perfect more in the British style, but still not to the same extent.
 
Having been in the living room, I might come into the dining room, where the rest of the family has been for a while, and announce, "The cat ate the goldfish" (by way of reporting a simple fact), but I think you would say, "The cat has eaten the goldfish". Clearly there ´s a connection to the present, so the present perfect makes much more sense, but, as I said, if the connection isn ´t part of the announcement, then we use the simple past.
 
I ´m more fascinated than ever by this topic.

Bruce 

5 Jun 2017     



cunliffe
United Kingdom

The headline this morning in the UK (one of them!):
´Jeremy Corbyn called for the Prime Minister to resign. ´ Before listening any further, I know that he has taken back the call, otherwise it would have been: ´Jeremy Corbyn has called for the PM to resign. ´

He has changed his mind. Politicians, eh?

6 Jun 2017