Why is the phrase "Math was never my strong point" more common (about twice as much according to a simple Google search) than "Math has never been my strong point" when the last one makes more sense? Is it because the former phrase is shorter?

The question came up here when @StoneyB replied with "Proofreading was never my strong point" to a comment made by @tyler-james-young


Here is an example from OALD, Oxford's Advanced Learner's Dictionary, found in the Sense 13 of the word Strong:

good at something

  • The play has a very strong cast.
  • Mathematics was never my strong point(= I was never very good at it).
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    I feel there is a gap between the ELL Grammar and the practice! Does not "math never was /or was never my strong point" refer to the past whereas "math has never been my strong point" is the most fit sentence because it describes a state that was and still true in the present?
    – learner
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 1:09
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    I understand why you might think that, but in practice any such distinction is almost certainly irrelevant. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the guiding principle should be don't use Past Perfect unless you really have to. And that applies equally to Present Perfect. Just because you can justify using a more complex verb form doesn't mean you should do so. We use language to communicate, not to show off our knowledge of verb forms. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 1:29
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    @FumbleFingers - I'm new to ELL, but I agree with learner here! Since math truly was never my strong point, that's what I say, because I am finished with it (Yay!!!). But if someone asks me for help with a math problem, and I'm fumbling through it with them, then I explain that math has never been my strong point, because I'm doing it now. But, either way, it works. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 2:41
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    @Susan: Erm... Unless I'm much mistaken, OP hasn't raised the issue of whether the "mathematical illiteracy" is relevant to the time of utterance. The more it is, the more you can justify using Present Perfect, so obviously if you're saying it as the reason why you can't help someone now, that's about the best justification you can have. My point to OP is that even though PP can be used here, it's not necessary (nor is it often better - it's really just an alternative). But why introduce a complexity you don't need, when there's so much else to learn? Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 3:04
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    @Susan: I'm only guessing, obviously. But it seems to me OP is suggesting that because it's almost certainly objectively true that the "past" condition still applies in the present, it should logically be expressed using Present Perfect in all contexts. But my position (and yours, I think) is that Simple Past is also fine - it's just that the more that (ongoing?) condition is relevant to the present context, the more likely you are to use PP. But you don't often really need to, because the intended meaning is invariably clear anyway. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 16:32

1 Answer 1


When editing or proofreading, you should generally avoid changing things that are intelligible in their original form.

That said, the difference in tense between "was never" and "never has been" is significant enough that I, as a reader (and professional editor), find myself expecting "was never" to be followed by one of two things:

1) An explanation of how the situation changed (how the speaker became better at math or gained confidence in math), or 2) A continuation of discussion in past tense, such that whether the speaker's math skill improved would be irrelevant.

To give credit where it's due, much of this is discussed in comments to the question.

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