Grief and the Present Tense

Last week I was pleased to come across the following piece about the present perfect. Posted by Jiwon Lee in the ITBE Link quarterly newsletter, the article has played on my thoughts and prompted me to think about tense in a whole different way.

A new way of teaching the English present perfect

Most of us learned about perfect tenses in elementary school, and the past tense learned is probably appropriate here. The learning we’re talking about likely occurred in the past without subsequent, continued thought on the matter. But the reasons why we might in one instance choose the past tense (I went to the store) and in another instance choose the present perfect (I have gone to the store) are worth investigating.

When we speak or write, we choose our words largely on feel (and with the idiomatic nature of English we’d likely drive ourselves crazy otherwise), so it’s no wonder we don’t spend an overwhelming amount of time questioning why we might decide unconsciously on one of two seemingly appropriate options.

When we choose the past tense, however, we’re suggesting that something occurred and was isolated as an event in the past. But when we choose the present perfect, we’re suggesting that while something happened in the past, the effects of the action are still active in a circle of time surrounding the immediate present.

In my life I’ve lost a large number of people I care for deeply, and of late I’ve been thinking much about grief and the grieving process. In the “going to the store” example above, I can easily understand someone not seeing much of a difference between “I went to the store” and “I have gone to the store.” But there is a subtle distinction, and it’s an important one.

Think about the different connotations between “My friend died” and “My friend has died.” The former relegates the event completely to the past, whereas the latter suggests that the event occurred in the past but in a very real way is still occurring.

As we come to terms with loss the actual effect might not be “My friend died” but rather “My friend has died and is dying and is dying and is dying” until we finally come to terms with and accept the fact of that death. The present perfect therefore implies a greater influence of a past event over the present, and as anyone who has lost someone knows, death has a way of shaping our sense of time in ways that are certainly felt, if not always completely understood.

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