I heard a lady talk about her late husband today and was curious about her verb tense usage.

She said,

"He was a loving father. He always took the kids out on weekends. He would stop whatever he was doing for the kids."

But then, I'm not entirely sure why she talked in simple past, since although he is dead, she was talking about a lot of things that happened in the past. It feels like she should have spoken in present perfect, since she was talking about several different events, not about specific times in the past. Can you please help?

  • Pato, I edited some apparent typos, in particular “took their kids”→ “took the kids” because when the lady is speaking, “their kids” refers to someone else's kids, not hers. Revert that if you really meant “their kids”. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Mar 21 '13 at 0:18

When talking about the dead, as a rule of thumb, one uses the simple past because there's no possibility that the dead person or persons being talked about will do anything more in the present or future. They're gone. They once were here, but now they're not. Everything they've ever done is completely over, so the present perfect is the wrong tense. Even if you believe in ghosts, and you're talking about someone who used to be, for example, unpleasantly sarcastic when she was alive, but is now, in her postmortem spectral (ghostly) existence, kind and pleasant in speech, you'd say something like this:

Tina {was / used to be [CHOOSE ONE]} a tenaciously sarcastic termagant when she was alive, but since she has died and has become this castle's constant comely haunt, she has been as pleasantly waggish as a kitten wrestling a ball of knitting wool.

The lady talking about her late husband was talking about events in the past; therefore, they require the past tense. In storytelling, however, it's possible to talk about the past in the present tense to try to give the writing and the story a sense of immediacy (that is, that the story is occurring as the reader reads it, something like reality TV). But that's writing. It's harder to do in speech unless one is a practiced storyteller or knows only present-tense forms.

| improve this answer | |
  • In regards to your example, why shouldn't it be "had died"? Is it because the act of dying took place after her life as a sarcastic person? I guess I can understand the "has become" since this fact is still relevant. Like, when I'm reading books, anything that happens before a character's action gets "had". For example, I read this once: "John thought about what she had just said". – Pato Mar 21 '13 at 12:17
  • @Pato: The sequence of tenses doesn't allow "had died" here: that would require a subsequent past-tense verb, not a present perfect. The sequence of tenses is difficult even for native English-speakers. – user21497 Mar 21 '13 at 12:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.