I have a Japanese friend who is learning English and recently posed me (a native speaker) a question that I am having trouble answering. The problem revolves around two statements:

I was able to get the photos done before I left today

(A contrived example)

He asked you to detain me until he got here, right?

(From an H.G. Wells work)

We started with the former example, where I pointed out that this sentence implies he has already left. My friend countered with the latter example, where the sentence does not make this implication, and he may not have left yet.

I agree with his statement, and believe that the latter is colloquial, albeit not grammatically correct. However what I am having trouble understanding is why the latter is colloquial and not the former. Both of the sentences look grammatically the same to me (past tense followed by a preposition followed by past tense). I believe that no native English speaker would ever say the former example in a scenario where they have not already left, but I could see some people saying the latter in a scenario where he has not left yet (or where his state is unknown).

Is there a concrete reason why the latter is accepted in this scenario where the former is not?

  • The past tense until he got here is "licensed" in your context by the principle of "backshifting" reported speech (as with He asked you what your name was). It has no real implications for whether "he" has already left or not - it could be in a context where he won't arrive until a very long time in the future, or where everything happened a very long time ago. Only using "present tense" until he gets here truly restricts the context to "time of speaking (now, reporting what he asked then) is earlier than (future) time of arrival". – FumbleFingers Dec 11 '18 at 18:10
  • If a phrase is used by speakers colloquially, it is by that alone grammatical. Usage determines grammaticality, and not the other way around. In addition, there is nothing wrong with the first sentence. – AmE speaker Dec 11 '18 at 23:28
  • Why might that be better met here than at English Language Learners? – Robbie Goodwin Dec 12 '18 at 1:59

The second sentence contains indirect speech with a matrix verb in the past, so the verb get is backshifted to got.

[Incidentally, there is no question of "future perfect" here. The English for what the person presumably said is "until I get here", not "until I shall have got here". The fact that some other language would use a future perfect in this context has no relevance for a discussion of English. ]

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