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I have a friend who insists that

"I didn't know you like her"

is more correct than

"I didn't know you liked her"

if the liking is still taking place. But to my ear, only the latter sounds correct.

Which of the above (if any) is correct and why?

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1  
possible duplicate of "He didn't know where New Jersey was" –  FumbleFingers Jan 31 at 18:15

8 Answers 8

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I have a friend who insists that

  • 1.) "I didn't know you like her"

    is more correct than

  • 2.) "I didn't know you liked her"

if the liking is still taking place. But to my ear, only the latter (#2) sounds correct.

Which of the above (if any) is correct and why?

*

Trust your ear. :)

Your ear knows. As in all things dealing with today's English, we native English speakers know what sounds right and what sounds wrong -- but it can be hard to explain the grammar of the why of it all.

Generally, your version #2 is the preferred version, for it is the speaker's knowing that is foregrounded, while the info of your liking her is backgrounded. That is, previously the speaker didn't know that you liked her, but now the speaker does know. And that is what version #2 is doing, foregrounding the speaker's knowing, and backgrounding the info of your liking her by backshifting the verb "like" into "liked".

(Version #1 would be used if, for some reason, the speaker wanted to foreground the info that you like the girl. But that is rather unlikely for the example sentence in the usual context.)

.

LONG VERSION: (Note: "preterite" == a past tense form of a verb)

The preterite has three main uses:

  • past time,
  • modal remoteness,
  • backshifting.

Your example illustrates a backshifting use. Backshifting is often used in indirect reported speech, e.g. "Jill said she had too many commitments" when Jill's original utterance was "I have too many commitments" -- notice how Jill's present-tense "have" was backshifted into the preterite "had".

Backshifting in a subordinate clause can occur when either one of the following conditions is true:

  • A.) The tense of the matrix clause is a type of past-tense.

  • B.) The time of the matrix clause situation is in the past time sphere.

In your example:

  • "I didn't know you like/liked her"

the matrix clause's verb is "did", which is a past tense verb form, and so, it fulfills the above #A. (The matrix clause also fulfills #B, in that the situation of the speaker not knowing was in the past time sphere.)

And so, a backshifted preterite can occur. But then there is the question of preference, and even the question of obligatory vs optional backshifting.

Your example sentence seems to me to be an illustration of where there would be a strong preference for a backshifted version. Your example seems very similar to,

  • I thought it [was] mine.

which is discussed in the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), pages 157-8:

(c) Focus on original

If the focus is on the original utterance or belief, with a contrast between 'then' and 'now', this will favor the backshifted version:

  • I thought it [was] mine. -- (backshifted)

One context of this is where it has just been established that it is mine: thought would here be strongly stressed, indicating a contrast between past thinking and present knowing (of the same proposition). Another context is where it has just been established (or claimed) that it is not mine: here the contrast is between what I thought in the past and what is known/claimed in the present. In either case the past time location of the thinking is foregrounded, focused, and this favors the backshifted version, preserving the original T-o: deictic is would hardly be possible here.

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"I didn't know (that) you liked her"

This phrase means: at some time in the past I was unaware that 'you' liked her. This does not necessarily imply that the action, like, has stopped for the second person. He or she could still like the girl today.

A: Mmm... strawberry ice-cream. My favourite.

B: I didn't know you liked strawberry ice-cream, I always thought you liked chocolate.

If however, the person no longer likes that girl we would say:

I didn't know you used to like her

here the action, like, belongs to the past and contrasts with the present. Today he/she does not like that girl.

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+1 - good, helpful analogy. –  medica Feb 1 at 1:34

"I didn't know you liked her" sounds much better. Without context, "I didn't know you like her" introduces ambiguity because of the. Another valid parse is "I didn't know you like [I know] her"

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Only in writing. In speech (which appears to be what the asker is concerned with here), no confusion would ever arise. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 1 at 10:04

I'd actally prefer "I didn't know you like her", too.

The other one might be correct, too. But this version's just more unmistakable in showing that you still like her.

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To me, "I didn't know you liked her" sounds/feels better. It's not the liking her or not that is being discussed. It's the not knowing that is/was the case.
The liking is irrelevant, so using the past participle is more neutral, as in: less chance of your liking her becoming a subject to be discussed.

However, if we inverse the sentence:

You like her, I didn't know that

Is something completely different, considering:

You liked her, I didn't know that.

In these cases, the fact that you like(d) her is clearly the topic that is being discussed, rather than the not knowing.
Therefore, I'd say:

I didn't know you liked her.

and

You like her, I didn't know that.

Or if I were to steal your (ex-) girlfriend

You (still) liked her, I didn't know that.

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It does not sound at all correct to me to say I didn't know you like her. My immediate reaction was to say that the tenses must match.

But if you change the second verb to 'see', so that it becomes 'I didn't know you see her', meaning currently and on a regular basis, that sounds perfectly alright. I experience no need to change it to 'I didn't know you saw her', although that could equally refer to something that is currently taking place.

I have tried out a few other verbs, with 'I didn't know' all of which refer to something that is currently happening. Curiously some seem to work better with the past tense and others with the present. Below I have used the tense which seems to me right:

PAST I didn't know you liked her/knew her/recognised

PRESENT I didn't know you see her/meet her/teach/speak to/write to/understand/play with

In practice I think one can use either tense with all of them. The important point is that the fact of the past tense following such as 'I didn't know' does not necessarily mean it happened in the past only.

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"I didn't know you liked her" is not only better sounding, it is also significantly more accurate. As with a lot of English, it's easier to understand if you expand the thought.

Saying "I didn't know you liked her" is saying

Up until now, I did not know that there was a period of time leading up to now in which you liked her.

That is, you are talking about your lack of knowledge over a period of time about the subject's interest in her over a period of time.

By contrast, saying "I didn't know you like her" is saying

Up until now, I did not know that in this exact moment you like her.

In this case, you are implying that you lacked knowledge over a period of time about an instantaneous moment which hadn't happened yet.

Both are grammatically correct. They both successfully convey an idea. But the idea conveyed by the "like" form is a very strange one, and unlikely to be the thought you actually want to express.

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There is nothing instantaneous or momentary about the present tense. “I like her” means that I currently like her, but it doesn’t mean that I only just started liking her a split second ago and will stop again as soon as I finish the sentence. The ‘like’ version can be better phrased as, “I didn’t know that you currently like her”. There is nothing strange or unlikely whatsoever about that idea. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 31 at 21:49

I'd use both:

I didn't know you (still) like her = I thought you'd stopped liking her

I didn't know you (ever) liked her = I thought you hated her all the time

However, I feel that the 2nd option is "safer" as it can convey both meanings.

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