dorsetgirl (dorsetgirl) wrote in linguaphiles,

Use of tenses in different varieties of English

Someone mentioned in a comment to a recent post that “American English prefers the simple past in most situations where British English prefers the present perfect”

The example was given of British English using "Who has had a heart attack?" while American English would generally use "Who had a heart attack?" To me, as a native speaker of British English, those two phrases have quite different meanings, and would be used on different occasions. (I would be very confused if someone asked a group I was in "Who had a heart attack?" I would be thinking "What? When? Who said someone had had a heart attack?")

The discussion reminded me of the time I had a fic beta’d by someone in the US; I hadn’t realised until then the extent to which American English uses tenses differently from British English. She made many changes that to my mind changed the meaning completely, so I changed most of them back. One example which has always stuck in my mind was this:

I had written: “Sam went back to his desk. Someone had written him a note...”

She changed it to: “Sam went back to his desk. Someone wrote him a note...”

To me, that second wording means “Sam went back to his desk and while he was sitting there someone came along and wrote him a note.” In other words, from Sam’s point of view at that moment of returning to his desk, I had placed the note-writing in his past. The beta-reader changed my sentence to something that placed the note-writing in his present or near future.

For speakers of British English: do you read that revised wording the way I do? Am I using these tenses the same way as you do?

For speakers of American English: Do the beta-reader’s changes reflect normal American usage? And if so, if you were writing in the third person, past tense, how would you express the two different concepts:

A - Sam arrives at his desk and the note-writing is finished

B - Sam arrives at his desk and then the note-writing happens

For speakers of other varieties of English: How do you do it? How do you read these sentences? Does your use of tenses tend to the American way, or the British, or something different again?

ETA: I'm amazed and delighted that replies are still coming in for this. Any I haven't managed to address so far I hope to catch up with very soon.

(btw I couldn't find a tag for tenses.)
Tags: american english, english

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