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Note: feel free to rephrase the title to be much better.

I am still confused with determining whether an event can be regarded as a past event or present event. I will use a timer (format mm:ss:pp) to ease our analysis where p stands for 1/100 seconds.

Case 1: an event completes before my speaking

00:00:00 - 00:02:00 : A boy is smiling at me.

00:02:01 - 00:04:00 : I want to say but I am not sure which one is correct?

  • He smiles at me as if he felt happy.
  • He smiled at me as if he had felt happy.

From mathematical point of view, I choose the second option. Unfortunately, there are some people also use the first one.

Case 2: an event completes at the middle of my speaking

00:00:00 - 00:02:00 : A boy is smiling at me.

00:01:51 - 00:03:50 : I want to say but I am not sure which one is correct?

  • He smiles at me as if he felt happy.
  • He smiled at me as if he had felt happy.

I have no idea which one I should choose.

Consideration

It is impossible to say at a single point in a time interval. It takes some interval to do any action. The problem is how we can determine an event is a past or present. What is the width of present interval measured from the point we start speaking?

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English isn't a precision scientific experiment; it's a language. It doesn't need to be timed down to the hundredth of a second. In both case 1 and case 2, I think either "He smiled at me as if he felt happy", or "He is smiling at me as if he feels happy", is perfectly fine English. (As one of the answers explains, we don't use "He smiles at me" in this situation.) –  Peter Shor May 25 '12 at 18:58
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2 Answers

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In English we rarely use the simple present except to describe an ongoing state or continuously recurring event.

If you were walking down the street and a stranger smiled at you, you would not normally say, "He smiles at me." You would say, "He smiled at me." You would only use the simple present if you want to say that he does this all the time, like, "He smiles at everyone he meets."

Likewise, if you said, for example, "I eat ice cream", people would normally understand you to mean that this is something you do regularly and routinely, not that you are doing it at this very moment. If you want to express the idea that you are doing it right now, you would say, "I am eating ice cream." If you just finished it, even if it was just a few seconds ago, you use the past tense. "What did you have for lunch today?" "I ate ice cream."

One CAN use the simple present in a narrative. Like, "I get up. I walk across the room and open the window. I sit down." But this is very rarely used, and almost always to establish a certain mood of immediacy.

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Tense choice is determined by context and the meaning the speaker wishes to convey. In this case I will posit a context in which the speaker is reporting the actions of a boy to someone who cannot see the boy. In such a context, the key issue is whether the boy is or is not still smiling when you report the fact to the third party.

If he isn't still smiling (your Case 1), then the usual way to report this would be to use a past tense in both clauses:

  • He smiled at me as if he felt happy.
  • He was smiling at me as if he was feeling happy.

If he is still smiling (Case 2), then you would normally use a present tense in the main clause:

  • He is smiling at me as if he is feeling happy.
  • ?He smiles at me as if he feels happy.

If you wish to convey that he may be simulating happiness, you can use the subjunctive in the subordinate clause:

  • He is smiling at me as if he were feeling happy.

or possibly:

  • He is smiling at me as if he felt happy.
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