If you don’t buy it you will soon envy [a] the one who did [b].
If you don’t buy it you will soon envy [c] the one who does [d].
(The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language)

No doubt, [b] is anterior to [a]. But the relation between [c] and [d] is somewhat ambiguous (The book only says [d] is posterior to deictic time [speech time, I think]): [d] might be simultaneous with [c] or posterior to [c] or vice versa, I suspect. Which one is posterior to the other, or does it depend on the context?

  • It depends on the context... – Sweet72 Sep 18 '13 at 14:06

My first thought is that this depends on the context, namely, whether this is a product that one buys once and then keeps indefinitely, or if it is something that one buys and consumes in a regular cycle. Consider:

If you don't buy a house, you will soon envy the person who did.

If you don't buy diet soft drinks, you will soon envy the person who does.

In the first case, I expect to buy a house and keep it for a long period of time, so the purchase is a one-time event, so the verb should be past tense. In the second case, buying soft drinks is something one would likely do on a regular basis, so a continuous verb makes sense.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    @Listenever Jay got it entirely right and I got it half wrong. I urge you to un-accept my answer and accept his instead. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 19 '13 at 1:57
  • +1 But I suggest a different term than continuous, which is used by many writers as a synonym of progressive, as in the progressive construction person who is buying. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 19 '13 at 1:59
  • @StoneyB, When I clicked up Jay's reply, I weighed as much as yours, in fact. So it was regret that I had to choose one, technically. Respecting both of you and your comment, I'm changing. I can't thank you enough for both the replies. – Listenever Sep 19 '13 at 6:25
  • Both examples in the question used it, which is singular. Your habitual example uses diet soft drinks, which is plural. I think the plural lends itself to a habitual reading which is blocked by the singular it. Compare: "If you don't buy a diet soft drink, you will soon envy the person who does." Now that I've put this in the singular, is the habitual reading still available? I don't think it is, so I'm not sure this fully answers the question. – snailplane Sep 22 '13 at 18:36
  • Depending on the context (how often do we say that on this site?), "it" could refer to a single item or to a type of item. That is, I could say, "This is the last can of Coca Cola in the store. If you don't but it ..." Here "it" is referring to that one particular can. But I could also say, "Coca Cola is the best soft drink ever made. If you don't but it ..." Then "it" is referring to the product in general, not to one specific can or bottle. The first case calls for "did"; the second for "does". – Jay Sep 23 '13 at 21:28

In this case, common sense (that is, the shared presuppositions of speaker and hearer) tells us that the purchaser cannot be envied until he has bought it—the purchase must be anterior to the envy.

My gut feel is that this is built in to the telic aspect of verb [d] (or, rather, of the verb BUY to which it refers) and you can only create simultaneous reference with an atelic:

If you don't adopt this technology you will soon envy those who are using it.

I got it half right; but Jay's answer makes me realize that I completely missed what should have been an obvious understanding of your second sentence. Present-tense buys has, as he points out, an habitual or 'generic' sense which is inherently atelic: in he buys it every day each day's purchase has a goal which is reached, but the habit which is expressed does not.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.