I am an esl student. I have read a paragraph from the book The Old Man and Sea and found some tense problems. I don't know if I change the tense to this sentence, will it make sense?

from this

“I’ve been asking you to,“ the boy told him gently. “I have not wished to open the container until you were ready.“

to this

"I not wished to open the container until you were ready."

And what is the different between 'I only needed time to wash' and 'I only need time to wash'? why the word 'need' need to be in past tense.  

“I’m ready now,“ the old man said. “I only needed time to wash.“

  • 1
    You haven't just changed the tense: you have missed out not. Was that deliberate? Oct 15, 2016 at 10:06
  • 1
    You have not changed the tense. It's still past tense. You've taken out the auxiliary have of the perfect construction, and the negative not that allows until you are ready to be grammatical in a perfect construction. The negation is much more important than the "tense"; only is also a negative, and the difference you ask about is simply present versus past for the washing. Oct 15, 2016 at 12:30
  • @John Lawler, thank you for the quick response. So Do you mean If I don't need the negation, I can use simple past tense?
    – peter
    Oct 15, 2016 at 12:36
  • 1
    No. I mean that the sentence you modified is ungrammatical because you removed the not. The phrase until you were ready requires a length of time to end with until, but open does not take a length of time but a point in time. Not opening, on the other hand, does indicate a length of time in which it is closed, so it licenses the use of until. As I said, negation is much more important than "tense". If your teacher goes on and on about "tenses", and never mentions negation, you're in trouble. Oct 15, 2016 at 12:48
  • 1
    "have not wished" is present perfect, not past. Past perfect would be "had not wished"
    – Spencer
    Oct 15, 2016 at 13:21

1 Answer 1


The first sentence, "I have not wished to", is in the present perfect tense. We use that tense to relate an action or a state in the past to the present. The boy is saying that up until this point, he did not wish to open the container. You can't say "I not wished", because that's not correct; when you negate a verb in English, you have to use do, like I wish/I do not wish. In the past tense, you conjugate do, but not the verb you're negating, which remains in its bare infinitive, like I wished/I did not wish. So the sentence would have to be "I did not wish to open the container..."

For "I only needed time to wash" vs. "I only need time to wash", it's in the past tense because the needing is in the past. The old man does not need to wash now, he needed to wash earlier, but he is ready now.

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