I found this sentence in some book:

When Mom asked Gramma why she hasn't been answering the telephone, Gramma said. . . .

My question is about the sequence of tenses: shouldn't the past perfect continuous tense be used here in the reported speech?

  • I do not understand the close votes: the question is clear and points to a real problem, which FumbleFingers' answer addresses. – StoneyB on hiatus May 2 '13 at 3:26
  • Obviously, the question relates to something else altogether. I can see that the asker is unable to express correctly. This indeed is a NARQ in its present form. – Kris May 2 '13 at 6:44
  • Msgmaxim, you need to express your question with clarity and detail. Do not leave scope for presumptions on the part of the answerers. – Kris May 2 '13 at 6:46
  • I do not see what is wrong with the question nor the reason to tag this as a sp-vs-past-perfect. I used to think of all past tenses as of entire group, so by "past tense" I mean transition from present perfect cont. into past perfect cont. Second question only repeats what is asked int he first one. It might be not the best way to express the question, but at least that's how I've been taught. I guess I shall make it clearer by removing the second "question". – msgmaxim May 2 '13 at 12:30
  • By the way I am happy with Fumblefingers' answer. – msgmaxim May 2 '13 at 12:32

1: Mom asked Gramma why she hasn't been answering
2: Mom asked Gramma why she hadn't been answering
3: Mom asked Gramma why she didn't answer

In both #1 and #2, the implication is that Gramma has repeatedly failed to answer. But #1 further implies she was still ignoring the phone right up until when Mom asked why (or, noting StoneyB's comments below, up until when the statement was uttered/written).

In #2 it's at least possible she simply failed to answer last Wednesday, say, (when Mom called several times). Or again, as StoneyB says, continuously, right up until she was asked about it.

In #3 there isn't even any implication of how often Gramma ignored the phone. It could have been repeatedly, but it's possible Mom is only asking about one call she made at some time in the past.

Note that in OP's example, Mom asks Gramma about failing to answer the telephone (presumably, when Mom called). But in my "cut-down" versions she could be asking about Gramma failing to answer a question (that Mom just asked). That admits of several more temporal interrelationships (1a: why she isn't answering, 2a: why she hasn't been answering, 3a: why she doesn't answer).

Thus it's largely a matter of style/emphasis. There are different possible implications, but several meanings could apply to several verb tenses.

  • 1
    Mmm ... +0.9 1 implies that Gramma is still failing to answer at the time the sentence is written; it is 2 which implies that Gramma was still failing to answer at the time when Mom asked why. – StoneyB on hiatus May 1 '13 at 22:30
  • @StoneyB: Okay, I'll grant that. I was imagining the entire statement as being delivered so soon after whatever Gramma said that it would be meaningless to distinguish the different times. After all, in the real world, what could it possibly mean for Gramma to continue "failing to answer" after being asked about it? – FumbleFingers May 2 '13 at 2:28
  • Oh. My read on 1 was something on the order of "Gramma hasn't answered her phone for three weeks. Mom asked her about it last week and Gramma told her to mind her own business. She said much the same thing to Eunice at the beauty parlor yesterday." – StoneyB on hiatus May 2 '13 at 2:46
  • @StoneyB: In my scenario, the "speaker" came round to Gramma's house with her Mom. He's just explaining to hard-of-hearing Grandpa what the two women are/were arguing about. – FumbleFingers May 2 '13 at 3:04
  • Context, context, context. – StoneyB on hiatus May 2 '13 at 3:27

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