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Thread: tense shift

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    Question tense shift

    I'm always confused by English tense questions, especially tense shift; I just don't understand why tense shift if we could express the same idea without shifting the tense. For example, a sentence like "a friend of mine used to work in the same company where i worked, his father was British and his mother was Chinese". I've been taught that past tense here won't cause confusion even his parents are still alive. But I want to know the logic behind. can we use present tense instead (...his father is British and his mother is Chinese). By the way, if "his parents" are dead, is the present fine?

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    Re: tense shift

    Actually, I would interpret the "father was British" form to suggest that his father is dead, or at the very least, of whereabouts unknown. If the event was significantly in the past, so long ago that you really don't know about the vitality of the parents, then I believe you can say "his father was British," and you may feel fairly safe that you haven't prematurely interred anyone. However, if the story is contemporary, if you still speak to your friend, or certainly if you know his parents to be still alive, then definitely you need to say, "He lived there then and his parents are British."

    In fact, I've often heard people trip up on statements like that, and hasten to make corrections mid-sentence:

    "I lived there in the 1970s. My father was British, well, actually, he still is British, I mean, like, when we lived there... , well, you know what I mean....."

    It would have been easier to say it correctly in the first place. "I lived there then. My father, who is British, used to tell me...."

    The really awkward part is when the person you are referring to by relationship, is no longer that relation. For example, I am divorced. I am often caught having to correct myself in phrases like, " wife was Italian, I mean, is Italian, er, I mean, my former wife is still Italian...." It would have been better to say, " Italian-born ex-wife used to say ...."

    Or perhaps, it would be better not to mention her at all!
    Last edited by jlinger; 21-Oct-2008 at 02:46.

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