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A student has written:

Still, I have already been aware of most of the information even before watching the video.

It doesn't feel right and I would normally use a past simple here. I'm on my two hundredth script and losing my ability to reason, or to adequately explain to myself why it should be past simple (I think it's 'before' as this puts the time as completed, so he can't use the present perfect notion of unfinished time). What I need to know is:

  1. Should it be simple past of present perfect here, or doesn't it matter?
  2. Why/why not?

All help gratefully received.

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Or could it also be past perfect 'I had already been aware...'- showing the order of the events? –  Qube Jul 24 '12 at 12:08
    
Thank you Barrie, Elf and Daniel for transcribing my addled thoughts into more erudite answers. You've all offered the answer, but Daniel gains the green tick for his comprehensive treatment of the subject. –  Qube Jul 24 '12 at 21:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 1 down vote accepted

As Barrie and Elf said, your intuition is correct. The basis of the error is a subtle one, as with most matters affecting simple past versus present perfect in English, but maybe you can it explain it to the student along the following lines (which you’ll need to adapt to whatever you’ve told them about this tense).

  1. The context doesn’t justify an experiential use of the present perfect. These uses make good answers to Have you ever questions (Have you ever swum with dolphins? seen a shark when surfing? eaten snake?). If I ask you, in a deposition, say, Have you ever been aware of the contents of an 43-101 report before reading it?, you could answer: Yes, I've been aware of the information the report contained even before reading it, meaning that at some vague point in the past you had awareness prior to reading. That is crucially different from what your student wants to say: that (s)he was aware at a specific time, just before a particular showing of a film.
  2. Nor is a resultant state perfect (present perfect of result) appropriate. When these combine with predicates that denote nonpunctual events (know the answer, believe the rumour, study French; as opposed to punctual burst the balloon, reach the summit), they usually mark the onset of the attained state (I’ve known the answer for five minutes / since you walked in the door), or indicate overlapping intervals (I’ve known the answer for the whole time you’ve been talking). They are infelicitous with phrases the mark other time points (e.g., the endpoint I’ve known the answer until you walked in, or a midpoint, Having figured it out five minutes ago, I’ve known the answer when you started explaining). The problem with the student’s sentence is that, in I have been aware before watching, the before clause highlights that awareness preceded watching, so an overlap reading is inappropriate and an onset reading is impossible.

The basic idea is, run through the list of uses you’ve given your students for present perfect and explain why none is apt here.

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It’s difficult to envisage the sequence of events with that construction. If the speaker is about to watch the video and is commenting on it before doing so, then you might expect Still, I am already aware . . . If the speaker is recalling a past occasion then Still, I was already aware . . . would be appropriate.

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You're right in feeling that there's something amiss. This is because the Have P.P. normally connects and relates to now.

The observation that the phrase "before watching the video" establishes a past point is also correct.

So, the tense should be changed to:

Still, I was already aware of most of the information even before watching the video.

Your idea to use the Past Perfect (Had P.P.) would also work.

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