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  1. suprunp's Avatar
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    #1

    since the subject of the sentence determines

    Winston Churchill has twice visited Harvard.
    [...]
    It has been claimed that [this sentence] can only be appropriately used in the lifetime of
    Churchill, since the subject of the sentence determines the interpretability of the perfective in terms of a period of time leading up to the present.

    (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language)

    I seem to be able to understand the implied meaning, that the perfective aspect of the verb indicates that the subject should be still in existence. But the precise meaning of the part in bold somehow eludes me.

    Would you be so kind to split hairs, as it were?

    Thanks.

  2. 5jj's Avatar
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    #2

    Re: since the subject of the sentence determines

    [...]
    It has been claimed that [this sentence] can
    only be appropriately used only in the lifetime of Churchill, because whether or not we can interpret the present as referring to a time period leading up to the present depends on who the subject of the sentence is.

  3. suprunp's Avatar
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    #3

    Re: since the subject of the sentence determines

    Thank you, 5jj!

    I'm still slightly bewildered though.

    As far as I can understand it means that the subject of the sentence determines whether or not we interpret the perfect as referring to a time period leading up to the present. If so, then why can't we use the perfect now? We look at the subject, and if we know that the subject referent does not live/exist anymore, then we do not interpret the perfective as referring to a time period leading up to the present and vice versa.

    Would you please explain it to me?

    Thanks.

  4. 5jj's Avatar
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    #4

    Re: since the subject of the sentence determines

    The present perfect is related to the present time, so if we are speaking of a time period that ended before the present time, then we simply do do not use the present perfect. (This is not an absolute 'rule', but it is good enough for most situations.

    The possibility of Churchill visiting Harvard, except as a corpse, ended when he died. Up until that moment, we could use the present perfect in a sentence with Churchill as grammatical subject. Thereafter, we couldn't. If the subject were 'Harvard', we could say, "Harvard has been visited by Churchill, de Gaulle and Putin' (three well known leaders, one of whom is still alive). We could also say, "Harvard has been visited by many famous people including, A, B, C and D" (all dead). Even though it is within the 'lifetime' of Harvard we would not normally say, "Harvard has been visited by Churchill", (i.e. naming only one person no longer alive).Those words appear to carry the suggestion that it could be visited again bu Churchill.

    This is one of those many situations in which we are not dealing with absolute rules, but merely reporting what people generally say and write. I have no doubt at all that we could find the words "Churchill has visited Harvard", written or said after his death, if we searched long enough.

  5. suprunp's Avatar
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    #5

    Re: since the subject of the sentence determines

    Thank you, 5jj!

    I apologize at being slow to find the connection between what you've said and the sentence in question. While I can comprehend your explanation without any difficulty (or so I think), I'm still unable to work out the precise meaning of the part in bold.

    It seems to me that the subject of the sentence determines whether or not we should use the perfect, because 1) we look at the subject and then 2) decide whether it is appropriate to use the present perfect or the simple past. On the other hand, when we see a new sentence it is the usage of the perfect that determines our interpretation of the subject. We do not look at the subject, analyze it, make some search of whether its referent still exists and only after that interpret what the usage of the perfect suggests here; quite to the contrary. This is why I can't see how the subject can determine our view of the perfect, if this is what the part in bold claims, because I reckon I may be terribly wrong about its real meaning.

    Thanks.

  6. 5jj's Avatar
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    #6

    Re: since the subject of the sentence determines

    Quote Originally Posted by suprunp View Post
    It seems to me that the subject of the sentence determines whether or not we should use the perfect, because 1) we look at the subject and then 2) decide whether it is appropriate to use the present perfect or the simple past.
    We may do do that quite as formally and consciously as you have described it, but yes, you are basically right.
    On the other hand, when we see a new sentence it is the usage of the perfect that determines our interpretation of the subject. We do not look at the subject, analyze it, make some search of whether its referent still exists and only after that interpret what the usage of the perfect suggests here; quite to the contrary.
    When we look at an utterance in writing, we do not know what was in the writer's mind when they started the sentence. We have to use other clues. It is only when we get to the tense that we can decide whether the subject of the sentence is dead or not - something the writer knew before they started. The tense was originally determined by the subject, but we readers, who may not know the subject, have to back-check and back-reference to find out what the actual situation was. Once we have done this, we know that Churchill is dead, and we also know that that is why the the writer used the present perfect after making Churchill the subject of the sentence

    We do this back-referencing all the time. When I say, "I went to Paris last week", we ,and our immediate listeners, know that I am referring to the week before the present week. However, if we see these words in an old letter, we need to refer to the date at the beginning of the letter in order to know when 'last week' was.
    Last edited by 5jj; 09-Nov-2011 at 20:33. Reason: typo

  7. suprunp's Avatar
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    #7

    Re: since the subject of the sentence determines

    Thank you, 5jj!

    I seem to have finally grasped the 'subtle' meaning!

    So, put in layman's terms:

    1) If we have the 'wrong' subject that does not tally with the perfect as a time period leading up to the present, then we have 'problems'.
    2) If we have the 'right' subject that does tally with the perfect as a time period leading up to the present, then everything is Okay.

    Therefore, it depends on the subject whether or not we can interpret the perfect as a time period leading up to the present, but if the subject does not allow us to interpret it so - see 1).

    Am I somewhere near the 'truth'?

    Thanks.

  8. 5jj's Avatar
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    #8

    Re: since the subject of the sentence determines

    Quote Originally Posted by suprunp View Post
    Am I somewhere near the 'truth'?
    I think you may be, though you express yourself in terms that I wouldn't. That's not a criticism - It's just that I am not sure your words are saying what I think you meant them to say. Please excuse the bullying, but I have to add some words:
    1) If we have the 'wrong' subject that does not tally with the perfect as a time period leading up to the present, then we have 'problems'.
    I suppose so, but native speakers don't choose the wrong subject. If they do, through ignorance of the facts, then the listener will pick this up with some comment such as 'Didn't you know that Churchill was dead?'
    2) If we have the 'right' subject that does tally with the perfect as a time period leading up to the present, then everything is Okay.
    Yes

    Therefore, it depends on the subject whether or not we can interpret the perfect as a time period leading up to the present, but if the subject does not allow us to interpret it so - see 1).
    If we don't know the subject well enough to use the appropriate verb form, then we probably won't be speaking about him/her.
    .
    Part of the problem is caused by exercises in English course books asking learners to fill the gap with an appropriate tense. As they don't know the subject (who may be well know to native speakers) they get the answer 'wrong' and think the whole thing is difficult to impossible.

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