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"When did or will the event happen?" — This sounds silly to me.

To make matters worse, I would like to use passive voice because the question is in reference to a statement that uses passive voice.

"When were or will they be punished?" — This is especially bad because it sounds like "When were they be punished?" is an optional way of receiving the question.

Any answer is appreciated, but I'd really like to do this using a single sentence.

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Sorry, I'm not sure what the question is here; could you care better explain? –  user19148 Oct 6 '12 at 18:43
    
Is there a particular phrase you find confusing? I'm not sure what needs clarification. –  Conley Owens Oct 6 '12 at 18:45
    
Sorry, but I do not understand the actual sense, if any, of this question! –  user19148 Oct 6 '12 at 18:54
    
I don't know if you have any practical usage in mind, but it's an intriguing question. –  itsbruce Oct 6 '12 at 19:28
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The subjunctive and infinite moods are miraculous moods. When it happens, you should hide under your bed. I would hide under the bed, when it ever happened. I should hide under the bed, when it happens. When would they be punished? –  Blessed Geek Oct 7 '12 at 6:24

9 Answers 9

up vote 5 down vote accepted

English verbs are pretty strongly tensed, unfortunately, so any solution will be a bit odd by virtue of mixing tenses. Regardless, repeating the pronoun makes your passive example work:

When were they, or will they be, punished?

The commas are optional, but I like them.

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I like. I'll accept if there's nothing better in a few hours. –  Conley Owens Oct 6 '12 at 18:48
    
What if the subject of the sentence is rather long? For example: "the convicted criminals". Would you just write that out twice? –  Conley Owens Oct 6 '12 at 18:51
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@ConleyOwens: Perhaps "As for the convicted criminals, when were they...?" could work. In any writing, what sounds good usually depends on context. Go with what seems right. –  Jon Purdy Oct 6 '12 at 20:35

How about this trick?

This happens when?

If the other person knows the event to be in the past, they should assume that you were using the historic present. If they know the event to be in the future, they will assume the simple present. Either way, you win.

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3  
Oh, and you're also covered for recurring events. –  itsbruce Oct 6 '12 at 19:16
    
I still don’t think the present tense is very natural for past events—your sentence still sounds rather futuresome. I guess I just wouldn’t ask “When is the Battle of Hastings?” unless my time machine were acting up. –  Jon Purdy Oct 9 '12 at 17:25
    
Entire novels have been written in the historic present. –  itsbruce Oct 9 '12 at 17:44

It's rather difficult to envisage the circumstances in which such a sentence would be required, but you might say When were they punished, or when will they be?

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What about

When does punishment occur?

This leaves room to respond that it will occur or has already occurred.

In a similar vein, you could ask

When are they punished?

Again, the response can be that they have or will be.

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I think your first suggestion is unquestionably correct. Using present tense instead of past or future allows the question to remain valid for either case. Same as When is Easter in 2020?, where you can replace the year by any earlier one. –  FumbleFingers Oct 7 '12 at 16:41

Just about any verb-based question corners you into choosing a tense, which is precisely what you are trying to avoid.

By switching to a noun-based question, tense can be avoided.

Here are three possibilities:

  1. Date:

    Do we know the punishment date? (verbose)
    Date? (economic)

  2. Timescale:

    What timescale do we have on this? (verbose)
    Timescale? (economic)

  3. Time frame (tchrist's answer above):

    What time frame are we talking about for this event? (verbose)
    Time frame? (economic)

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He's not trying to avoid using a tense; he's trying to avoid implying the past or present status of an event. There is a difference. –  itsbruce Oct 6 '12 at 23:28
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@itsbruce, if I believed that, then I wouldn't have posted this answer. –  Beetroot-Beetroot Oct 6 '12 at 23:50

You might use:

What time frame are we talking about for this event?

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Wouldn't that imply that I'm asking for a timespan? The answer should be a single point in time and would like the question to make that clear. –  Conley Owens Oct 6 '12 at 18:42

There are many clear ways to convey the desired meaning.

  1. If they have not been punished, when will they be?
  2. If they have not yet been punished, when will they be?
  3. When will they be punished if they have not been?
  4. When did or will their punishment occur?
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None of those satisfy the terms of the question. –  itsbruce Oct 6 '12 at 23:26

I think I would simply ask:

Have they been punished yet?

The answer can then either be "Yes, they were punished last week", or "No, their punishment is scheduled for next week", or even, "No, the judge gave them a full pardon."

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Have they or will they be punished? If so, when did or will it occur?

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