The clock now says two fifty-three-just seven minutes to showtime. [The circus show beside the nursing home is to open at three, so if my family gets here now I can get there in time. All other old ones have gone there with their family but me now –– OP’s adding] My blood pressure is so high my entire body buzzes like the fluorescent lights above me.
   I've entirely given up on the idea of not losing my temper. Whoever shows up is going to get a piece of my mind, and that's for sure. Every other old bird or coot in the place will have seen the whole show, including the Spec, and where's the fairness in that? If there's anyone in this place who should be there, it's me. Oh, just wait until I lay eyes on whoever comes. (Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants)

There’s a perfect tense, and their having seen the whole show must be posterior to speech time. So I guess my mind has shifted to the time of the end of the shows and this strengthens the reality of sadness. Is this what the tense saying?

2 Answers 2


Arguably this is Lit Crit, but maybe it's got general applicability in that it shows how flexible English can be with tenses.

The speaker is talking about what the situation will be when one of his relatives finally shows up (to take him to the circus). But he still hopes someone will arrive within the next seven minutes, so he probably doesn't really expect them to be so late they won't arrive until after the show finishes (at which time, all the other residents of the nursing home will indeed have seen the whole show, right from the beginning).

So obviously on a literal reading, the tense should be will be [in the act of] seeing, but that's an awkward construction. The activity being referenced is seeing the whole show from start to finish. As the speaker's "reference time" is probably some time before that action completes, he uses simple past and ignores the discrepancy.

You could perhaps make out a case for saying the future tense implies greater pessimism on the part of the speaker - even if he doesn't really believe his relatives will be so late as to make his choice of tense "accurate", there's at least a hint of that in the tense choice.

But that really is Lit Crit. For our purposes here I think it suffices to say there simply is no elegant way of getting the tense exactly right, so most native speakers wouldn't even try.


Future references in English are not true future tenses but modal presents.

The speaker, I think, has at the front of his mind that at this point it is almost certain that he will miss some part of the performance—in particular, that he will miss the “Spec”, the grand opening.

His Reference Time (which is a timespan, not a point in time) is thus a present-extended-into-the-future which encompasses the entire course of future events between the tardy arrival of the person appointed to take him to the circus and his own tardy arrival at the performance. He contrasts his own future-but-certain inability to have seen the whole show with the happier future-but-certain lot of his more fortunate co-residents. It is now true that at whatever point he arrives he will be able to say to his co-residents “You have seen the entire show, and I have not.”

  • I'm not convinced our hero could grammatically make that final statement before the end of the show, unless we assume he means seen the entire show from the beginning right up to the current point. He could of course say [when the show ends] you will have seen the entire thing, but in OP's case we're assuming the show hasn't yet ended, so no-one has seen the whole thing yet. Oct 28, 2013 at 18:39
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Yeah, I think that's what he would mean there, and the sort of timeframe he has in mind when he writes the statement in question. Oct 28, 2013 at 18:47
  • Why are you trying so hard to avoid the reps? ;) +1 anyway! (And +1 to FF's answer as well.)
    – WendiKidd
    Oct 28, 2013 at 22:00

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