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  1. #1
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Default no stuff for the has-beens

    Hi again,

    The debate in one of my recent threads has reminded me of a linguistic phenomenom I came across some time ago. I`ve been bearing it in some corner of my mind, not being really conscious of it anymore, and as it struck me once it still strikes me now being aware of it again. What I am talking about it this: The present perfect - as the term itself suggests and as can be read in numerous grammar books - is mainly a present tense. Yet, there seems to be some evidence to insinuate its usage as a past tense. You can check in any monolingual dictionary that a "has-been" is not someone who used to be famous and popular and still is, but - contrary to the present perfect sense - someone who is no more famous or popular, i.e. someone who was famous and popular once upon a time, who is a goner. The same applies to the stale joke that most of you will be familiar with. It goes like this:

    Customer: Waiter! What sort of soup is this?
    Waiter: It`s bean soup, sir.
    Customer I don`t care what it`s been. I want to know what it is now.

    Here "has been" in the pun obviously refers to the past, doesn`t it? Can anyone of you account for that?

  2. #2
    Airone is offline Newbie
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Great subject!

    Remember, grammarians examine language and then try to distill "rules". Obviously rules or guidelines cannot take into account every circumstance.

    I wouldn't say personally that present perfect is mainly a present tense, but I'm sure some would disagree. How do you measure if it's "mainly" a present or past tense, anyway? Google hits? Appearances in a corpus? It's not that easy.

    "Rules" typically follow use, not the other way around. In the UK I've heard that it's more common to say "Will's just gone out" whereas in the US people would more likely say "Will just went out," but we mean the same thing.


    Quote Originally Posted by Hucky View Post
    Hi again,

    The present perfect - as the term itself suggests and as can be read in numerous grammar books - is mainly a present tense. Yet, there seems to be some evidence to insinuate its usage as a past tense...Can anyone of you account for that?

  3. #3
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by Airone View Post
    I wouldn't say personally that present perfect is mainly a present tense, but I'm sure some would disagree. How do you measure if it's "mainly" a present or past tense,
    In form it is clearly a present tense, constructed with the present tense of HAVE; it contrasts with the past perfect, constructed with the past tense of HAVE.

    In function, the present perfect appears to always have some connection with both past and present. The situation referred to ocuurred, or at least began, in the past, and has some connection, in the speaker's mind, with the present.

    As you rightly point out, a speaker of AmE is more likely to say "Will just went out" while a speaker of BrE is more likely to say "Will has just gone out." While there is no doubt that both speakers are referring to exactly the same situation, it is impossible to tell whether they see it in exactly the same way. It may be that the speaker of AmE considers the word 'just' to be a past-time word (like, for example 'yesterday') whereas the speaker of BrE considers it to be a word that refers to a past time so recent that it can be considered part of the present period.

    I have never seen the present perfect used with no connection at all to to present time, though the connection is not infrequently implied rather than explicitly stated. I have heard it so used, but only informally, in situations which suggest that the speaker has run two ideas together. Equally, I have never encountered a present perfect used exclusively with present reference.

    "It has been soup." The present perfect is used in this joke precisely because it makes the pun possible. In real life "it was soup, once" is probably a more likely utterance. However, the present pefect is not impossible - the speakers have the soup in front of them as they speak, the connection with the present. It would not be a natural utterance if the speaker were describing a bowl of something that had been served at a restaurant the previous day.

  4. #4
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    "It has been soup." The present perfect is used in this joke precisely because it makes the pun possible. In real life "it was soup, once" is probably a more likely utterance. However, the present pefect is not impossible - the speakers have the soup in front of them as they speak, the connection with the present. It would not be a natural utterance if the speaker were describing a bowl of something that had been served at a restaurant the previous day.
    It's not a very good pun for another reason in my opinion. Consider stress in the dialogue. The customer says:

    Waiter! What sort of soup is this?

    Now, the waiter answers the question:

    It`s bean soup, sir.

    He stresses "bean", because this word is the answer to the question. The customer understood "bean" as "been", so we have:

    It`s been soup, sir.

    But the stress didn't move, so the customer must interpret its placement. When would "been" be stressed? Only if that were the part of the sentence thought (by the waiter) to be questioned/questionable. So the customer must think that the waiter has opposed strongly to the idea that it hasn't been soup. He doesn't care about what has been, so he could say:

    I don`t care if it`s been soup. I want to know what it is now.

    with "if" instead of "what", because he thinks the waiter is discussing a yes-no problem. But it's an unlikely utterance again now, so I don't think there's much to be done to help the joke...

    I may be wrong of course.
    Last edited by birdeen's call; 31-Mar-2011 at 18:58.

  5. #5
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by Airone View Post
    Great subject!

    Remember, grammarians examine language and then try to distill "rules". Obviously rules or guidelines cannot take into account every circumstance.

    I wouldn't say personally that present perfect is mainly a present tense, but I'm sure some would disagree. How do you measure if it's "mainly" a present or past tense, anyway? Google hits? Appearances in a corpus? It's not that easy.

    "Rules" typically follow use, not the other way around. In the UK I've heard that it's more common to say "Will's just gone out" whereas in the US people would more likely say "Will just went out," but we mean the same thing.
    ref. para 1) That goes without saying! You can count me in!

    ref. para 2) Whatever the essence of this entity called present perfect is, one thing can be taken for granted at least from a synchronic point of view: actions or states rendered by it do not refer to the past alone, i.e. without any link to the present. That is why explicit reference to the past as expressed by temporal adverbials rule out its use categorically as in this agrammatical sentence.

    E.g.: It has rained / has been raining yesterday.

    That being said, the subjects of the current thread in question is a puzzle. Maybe it is simply inexplicable as language cannot be reduced to formal logic. If it is, Iīll content myself with it. If, however someone has a reasonable explanation in store, all the better!

    ref. para 3) Far away be it from me to enlarge upon the fundamentals of grammar theory (none of our business here, apart from the foreseeable desastrous consequences this would trigger), but let me in brief put it this way: I think it corresponds more to the linguistic reality to regard the relation between rule and use as an interaction, and analogously, the relation between descriptive and prescriptive grammar.

    Cheerio

    Hucky

  6. #6
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by birdeen's call View Post
    I may be wrong of course.
    Assuming that we are working with 'been', I think that the customer might place the stress in these places:

    1. I don't care if it's been soup...
    2. I don't care if it has been soup...
    3. I don't care if it's been soup...

    Given that the waiter has stressed 'bean', I feel that #1 is the most likely and #3 the least likely.

    Incidentally, when it was fresh, the joke was probably as funny as any punning joke of this nature.

  7. #7
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    Assuming that we are working with 'been', I think that the customer might place the stress in these places:

    1. I don't care if it's been soup...
    2. I don't care if it has been soup...
    3. I don't care if it's been soup...

    Given that the waiter has stressed 'bean', I feel that #1 is the most likely and #3 the least likely.
    Right, but I was trying to say that "what" in

    I don`t care what it`s been


    was out of place and "if" was necessary instead of it. I wasn't saying that the customer must have stressed "if", even though I underlined the word. I did it to make the change from "what" more visible. I'm sorry about the misunderstanding it caused.

  8. #8
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by birdeen's call View Post
    I'm sorry about the misunderstanding it caused.
    I'm sorry I missed your point about the inappropriateness of 'what'. It seems obvious now, but the joke is sometimes told in that form and still gets a laugh (if it hasn't been heard before). It shouldn't work, but it appears to.

  9. #9
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    In form it is clearly a present tense, constructed with the present tense of HAVE; it contrasts with the past perfect, constructed with the past tense of HAVE.

    In function, the present perfect appears to always have some connection with both past and present. The situation referred to ocuurred, or at least began, in the past, and has some connection, in the speaker's mind, with the present.

    As you rightly point out, a speaker of AmE is more likely to say "Will just went out" while a speaker of BrE is more likely to say "Will has just gone out." While there is no doubt that both speakers are referring to exactly the same situation, it is impossible to tell whether they see it in exactly the same way. It may be that the speaker of AmE considers the word 'just' to be a past-time word (like, for example 'yesterday') whereas the speaker of BrE considers it to be a word that refers to a past time so recent that it can be considered part of the present period.

    I have never seen the present perfect used with no connection at all to to present time, though the connection is not infrequently implied rather than explicitly stated. I have heard it so used, but only informally, in situations which suggest that the speaker has run two ideas together. Equally, I have never encountered a present perfect used exclusively with present reference.

    "It has been soup." The present perfect is used in this joke precisely because it makes the pun possible. In real life "it was soup, once" is probably a more likely utterance. However, the present pefect is not impossible - the speakers have the soup in front of them as they speak, the connection with the present. It would not be a natural utterance if the speaker were describing a bowl of something that had been served at a restaurant the previous day.
    No one with the slightest idea of what the present perfect is would deny the propositions put forward in your paragraphs 1-4.

    But I doubt whether your attempt to justify the tense in para 5 can hold water. Having the soup right in front of him, the customer asks in order to identify the soup what sort of soup it is and not what sort of soup is has been, which would be a nonsensical question ("Waiter, has this (always) been a tomato soup, or has it gone through different evolutionary stages of soup development, from tomato soup via mushroom soup to bean soup?")

    And even if it is for the punīs sake, I cannot imagine any English native speaker with half a brain to misunderstand the waiters reply this way. With American speakers it would be even more unlikely because of the alternative weak ponunciation of been (just like the word bin) because it lacks a phonetic basis for confusion.

    So, can anybody tell me if this is a real joke that once was around and popular. Has anyone ever come across it outside an English textbook (thatīs where I found it)?

    This observation has just given me a hint. If an English native speaker could not misunderstand it, a German native speaker with only a few scraps of English could indeed! Simply because the corresponding formal structure in German, the Perfekt, is primarily a preterite. Thatīs why it is one of the most complicated chapters in English grammar for speakers of German as a mother tongue to get used to the different usage of the English present perfect, which always remains a potential source of linguistic interference and confusion. I have just recalled another joke in an English coursebook designed for German-speaking students. This joke was also based on a typical mistake made by native speakers of German, and thus comprehensible for those only who are familiar with German. It went: The impatient customer asks the waitress: "When will I become a steak?" - The funny waitress replied: "Never, I hope, sir!"
    This so called joke was meant to warn the students not to mix up the English verb to become with the German verb bekommen, which in turn means to get. Only problem in the above case is that I spotted the joke in question here in a British studentīs book.

    But nevertheless best thanks for your attempt to demystify the enigma!

  10. #10
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    Default Re: no stuff for the has-beens

    Quote Originally Posted by Hucky View Post
    But I doubt whether your attempt to justify the tense in para 5 can hold water.
    At my age I have given up worrying about holding water or satisfying Hucky. Fare well.

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