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Groucho Marx had a joke that's long been a favorite of mine:

I've had a wonderful time; this wasn't it.

I assume he's using the present perfect to say I've had a wonderful time.

But, when he tacks on this wasn't it does it change to past perfect?

Or was it past perfect all along because of the have had construction?

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The word 'had' is reanalyzed from a tense/aspect helper verb to the content verb 'to be in possession of'. –  Mitch Feb 24 at 18:32
    
@Mitch Thanks. Can you make that an answer and expand upon it slightly so I can accept it! It's really helpful! –  David M Feb 24 at 18:36
    
@Mitch I always loved the joke, but I wanted to be able to try and translate it (if possible). Knowing exactly how to describe it helps me to determine if I can. Thanks again! –  David M Feb 24 at 18:38
    
I think you're referring to "tense", not "case". (Case is usually used for nouns; examples are subject, object, possessive...) –  Ypnypn Feb 24 at 23:17
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5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

(btw, there should be a full stop after wonderful time; otherwise it's a comma splice.)

Here's the way it works. There are four senses of the English Perfect Construction.
Normally the fixed phrase I've had a wonderful time would be interpreted in its Universal sense:

"used to indicate that a state of affairs prevailed throughout some interval stretching
  from the past into the present: I've known Max since 1960."

This means that from the start of whatever is going on (normally a party or other social event), the speaker has enjoyed themself, and thus this is a stereotypical leavetaking compliment to the host.

However, the next clause -- This wasn't it -- forces the Perfect into its Existential sense:

" used to indicate the existence of past events: I have read the book five times.

Therefore the implied compliment from the Universal sense is withdrawn, and the host is insulted.

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Oh, and it's not "case". English has no case. It's a matter of varying the interpretation of the English perfect construction. Does that help? –  John Lawler Feb 24 at 19:01
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Write like you talk. That's the only way to do it. –  John Lawler Feb 24 at 22:22
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... You talk in semicolons? –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 24 at 22:28
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I talk with intonation, and that includes full stops like semicolons. –  John Lawler Feb 24 at 22:35
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My wife says she has decided to learn to speak Spanish. I'm dying to see her handle those upside-down question marks. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 24 at 23:07

The normal sense of the sentence

I've had a wonderful time.

when spoken to the host is to refer to the current occasion. However, had can also be used in a sentence like:

I've had a wonderful steak.

In this case, it's referring to a past event.

The ambiguity is normally resolved based on social norms. The joke occurs when Groucho uses his clarification "and this wasn't it" to switch from the first sense to the second.

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Thank you for your answer. I was considering translating this joke for an Italian friend of mine. Hence, I was looking for the semantic sense of the joke. –  David M Mar 3 at 18:51

I've had a wonderful time; this wasn't it.

The joke works on the cancellation of a previously created implicature.

The first clause,

  • I've had a wonderful time;

implies that the speaker (the "I") has just had a wonderful time -- that the most recent event was that wonderful time. (But this is not an entailment, and so could be explicitly cancelled, and if cancelled, it is usually cancelled almost immediately in the next clause or sentence by native English speakers.)

The next clause,

  • this wasn't it.

cancels that previous implicature. Thus, the "joke".

I've noticed that many EFL speakers can't get the handle on this sort of creation and canceling of implicatures. (Aside: Especially the ones who think they know English grammar better than the native speakers, and they argue and argue, not understanding that what they are saying ain't quite what they think it is.)

EDITED to add more info:

One of the main differences between the present-perfect construction and the past-perfect is that the present-perfect explicitly includes the present time-sphere. Both types of perfect construction include the past time-sphere.

In the OP's example "I've had a wonderful time; this wasn't it", the verb construction of the first main clause has not changed -- it is still a present-perfect construction, which is used to talk about the past but with the understanding that the present is also important.

If the present wasn't to be included (present == this current social event), then the speaker would normally use the past-perfect ("I had had a wonderful time") which would explicitly omit that current/recent social event, but that would sound weird for this social situation, where it is assumed that a guest is thanking the host for a wonderful time at the host's event. And that assumption of "thanks" is needed for the joke to work.

If a guest wanted to thank the host, then the simple past would often work, "I had a wonderful time", as it could refer to the very recent past which could refer to the just concluded social event. But then the joke probably wouldn't work as well,

  • I had a wonderful time; this wasn't it."

For the original joke with the present-perfect is explicitly including the present time-sphere, which strongly pulls in the implicature that the speaker is talking about the current social event as being that "a wonderful time".

The present-perfect has various uses, and one of them is to talk about a past situation that is very close to "now". Often, that situation is the present situation or a very recent situation. The joke relies on that common usage.

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......Upstarts! –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 24 at 23:10
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I understand the premise of the joke. I'm trying to figure out what grammatical terms shift in between the clauses in order to subvert the reader. –  David M Feb 25 at 0:23
    
@DavidM As I said in my post, it was that the reader assumed an implicature which was then cancelled. The verb construction of the first main clause has not changed -- it is still a present-perfect construction, which is used to talk about the past but with the understanding that the present is also important. If the present wasn't involved (present == this current social event), then the speaker would normally use the past-perfect ("I had had a wonderful time") which would explicitly omit that current/recent social event. If you think it would be helpful, I could add this info to my post. –  F.E. Feb 25 at 0:33
    
Yes. The fact that the joke remains in the present perfect is helpful. I was thinking of trying to translate it, but couldn't quite isolate the proper tense to do so. –  David M Feb 25 at 0:36

"Brevity is the soul of wit," or so they say. If I suck out the brevity from Marx's witticism and add a bunch of words, it would look as follows:

"I've had a wonderful time in the past at gatherings similar to this, but this particular gathering did not qualify as a wonderful time."

The witticism is gone, obviously, but both "wonderful times" are in the past (viz., the near past and the not so near past).

Also, as Mitch, above, points out, the word had is used somewhat metaphorically to mean "[I have] experienced" or "[I have] been in the possession of" a good time. Consequently, the host of the party thinks initially to himself or herself,

"Oh, my guest is saying he has just had a good time at my gathering."

When he hears "this wasn't it," however, he then understands the insult, and thinks to himself,

"Oh, my guest has had a good time at a party other than mine, but he did not have a good time at my party."

They didn't call Groucho, Grouch-o, for nothing!

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Perhaps it was the party of the first part. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 24 at 23:09
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Indeed! Bringing Groucho's zinger up to date, you might end up with, "I've partied hearty, but not here!" –  rhetorician Feb 25 at 0:17
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This is Groucho's signature move: use a word or phrase that leads everyone into thinking one thing, and then deliver the surprise punchline. One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know. Translating some of these zingers could be tough. –  J.R. Feb 25 at 1:47
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Even pyjamas doesn't sound right. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 25 at 9:19

The joke works, if it works at all, because speaker and listener understand different things by I've had a wonderful time. The listener assumes it relates to some event at which the listener has been the host. The speaker, however, has in mind some other event. There is no change in the function of the verb phrase ‘ve had.

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I think strictly speaking your last line isn't really true. Or at least, it might depend on whether you mean the grammatical function (i.e. - it's always "present perfect"), as opposed to the semantic function (it may refer to the immediate past as part of the "present context", or some much earlier time). –  FumbleFingers Feb 24 at 19:11
    
I understand the joke's meaning. (After all, it's a favorite of mine.) I just was wondering if there was a name for the grammatical sense of the shift in meaning. I believe that @JohhLawler has it correctly above. –  David M Feb 24 at 19:32
    
@FumbleFingers. Yes, I think I meant the grammatical function. I had in mind Mitch's answer, which I didn't think quite was quite right. John has explained it fully. Anyway, it's a pretty feeble joke. –  Barrie England Feb 24 at 19:45
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@Barrie: Yeah - I definitely didn't think Mitch's comment was right there (after all, it's exactly the same present perfect however you interpret it). Truth to tell, I upvoted your answer on the strength of your last line before reading John's answer - at which point I nipped back to yours, cancelled the upvote, and posted my comment. John's answer has now justly floated to the top of the list, and I feel somewhat enlightened by his Universal/Existential distinction. And I only think it's a feeble joke because I've heard it so many times - it was certainly funny to me as a teenager! –  FumbleFingers Feb 24 at 22:12

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