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One of my email activities to help students practice writing a condolence letter is about a boss whose wife, Edna, passed away recently. One of the supplied details is that you knew her for 5 years. Many of the students write:

"I am sorry to hear about Edna. She has been my friend for five years..."

I always change it to "She was my friend..." telling students that because the person passed away you can't consider her still a friend. In your heart and mind she still is a friend but she is not alive anymore; it's not an active friendship. On the flip side, I feel you could say "She has influenced my thinking at work." or "She has been influential in my career." because her actions still have an effect in your life.

I'm prompted to write this question because of another post in which a writer wanted to change "In his book, the author lamented the loss of the individual who had once been his closest friend." to "In his book, the author laments the loss of the individual who was once his friend."

My question is, gramatically I'm sure it's fine to use the present perfect, but stylistically is it better to use the simple past? As a teacher, I want to give students options to express themselves, so I'd like to be able to say either "No, we don't use present perfect,"(as I have been teaching) or "I choose not to, however some writers feel it is ok because..."

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  • Style advice on matters of social graces are primarily opinion-based and not well suited to a Q&A site.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 2:04
  • Well, I did put "stylistically" in my question but maybe the grammar IS wrong, so maybe it's not so opinion based. Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 2:10

3 Answers 3

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I agree with you, that you should guide your students to say, "I am sorry to hear about Edna. She was a true friend and a guiding light to me."

If we want to put in the stuff about the five years, things get more complicated. If you visit your boss on Edna's death bed: "Edna has been a true friend and guiding light for me, ever since I started working here five years ago." Now let's say you go to the funeral and then go home and describe the experience to your spouse. At this point, you would say, "I told my boss that Edna had been a true friend and guiding light for me, ever since I was first hired five years ago." Note that when you are grieving about Edna's death, even as a native speaker, you would have to force yourself not to use the wrong tense.

I support "In his book, the author lamented the loss of the individual who had once been his closest friend."

Unless these students are quite advanced, you might want to give them an exercise that's a bit less of a can of worms.

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Using the above example, and continuing, you would write like this:

I am sorry to hear about Edna. She had been my friend for five years. During that time she had a positive effect on my thinking at work, and in fact was influential in my successes throughout my career. I will miss her very much, yet am grateful to have the memory of her friendship and to have had the pleasure of knowing her. She was a special person, as I'm sure you know. Please accept my condolences to you and the rest of your family.

You can begin to get a feel for the differences in tense even within the same sentence, if you examine the above example.

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  • OK, so this introduces a new can of worms. What both you and Sankarane are saying is that past perfect is best because she died in the past and before that death she was my friend. So simple past could also be used in place of past perfect because it covers ALL of the past. Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 2:06
  • @michael_timofeev: There's a special usage for 'past perfect' tense, as I tried to explain in my answer. One more example here: The dog had been barking for five minutes until someone opened the door. Here, we're referring to the "time involved in an action", which requires 'past perfect', just as 'present perfect' which is used for verbs which are still relevant in the present, as "I've been teaching French for five years."
    – Sankarane
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 11:30
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My choice would be past perfect in this context.

I would write: "I am sorry to hear about Edna. She had been my friend for five years..."

In other words, she had been my friend (for five years) until she passed away. This tense is appropriate to refer to an action, state, situation or condition which occurred or used to be before another such action or incident in the past.

Even though a dead person may continue to influence our lives in many ways to such an extent that we might feel their presence at times, such a person ceases to be a friend in actuality, simply because he or she can no longer be a friend in the present. We may never say: "Edna is my friend."

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