Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

One of the things I enjoy most about language is that even a tiny change in phrasing or word choice can have a profound effect on what’s understood. I recently happened across a perfect example of this in one of my favorite linguistic areas, talking about time.

Consider the below two questions asking about two famous bands, one active and one not:

Did you ever see the Beatles live in concert?

Have you ever seen the Rolling Stones live in concert?

They’re both asking for roughly the same information, and both make perfect sense. Now, let’s swap the phrasing around:

Have you ever seen the Beatles live in concert?

Did you ever see the Rolling Stones live in concert?

Suddenly, to a native speaker, something’s off. Both the English present perfect tense (“Have you seen”) and the simple past tense (“Did you see”) indicate that the seeing would have happened before the conversation.

However, in swapping the two tenses, we’ve changed the implication of the sentence. In the first set of sentences, using the present perfect (“have you seen”) implies, through whatever linguistic wonder, that you still could go see the Rolling Stones if you wanted to. On the other hand, using the simple past acknowledges that, if you hadn’t seen them while you had a chance (before the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison), you never will.

This difference isn’t just to trip us up. We can use this implication productively, to clarify exactly what we’re talking about. Imagine being asked both of the below questions:

Did you ever visit the World Trade Center?

Have you ever visited the World Trade Center?

The first question, to most Native English speakers’ ears, is asking whether you had a chance to visit the World Trade Center towers before their destruction on 9/11. If somebody has visited the newly rebuilt World Trade Center complex, or perhaps the memorial garden, they should answer “Yes” to the second question, but not to the first. Similarly, if you asked a friend (about a mutual acquaintence) “Did John ever show you his scar?”, your friend’s reponse might start with “When did John die?!”

This difference in implication, a change in what linguists refer to as aspect, is very subtle, and may take many years for a non-native speaker to fully master. But at the same time, it’s very real, and it’s an important part of language which humans (and, in my research, computers) must be able to understand.

I just hope that you can understand it before somebody could ask me if you ever did.

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