22

Philip:So, you're an exchange student. Where do you go to school?

Alexandra:At the Bronx High School of Science.

Philip:Oh, that's a very good school. What are your favorite subjects?

Alexandra:Biology and mathematics. Richard tells me you're a doctor.

Philip:Yes, a pediatrician.

Richard has told Alexandra that Philip is a doctor before this dialogue happens. I would say Richard has told me you're a doctor instead of tells me.

Is it all right to use present simple here? Why?

  • Just a note that "has told" would be awkward in this sentence even if you weren't using "tells." Your natural-sounding options in that sentence are "tells" and "told" (no "has"). Both would be correct, but they mean subtly different things (as James K's excellent answer explains). – T.J. Crowder Jul 16 '18 at 9:26
  • @T.J. Crowder According to this topic, if the focus is on the result "you're a doctor.", the "has told" would be used, if the focus is on the moment when Richard told Alexandra, the "told" would be used. Why would you prefer "told" over "has told", is it idiomatic? – preachers Jul 16 '18 at 14:06
  • preachers - It depends on how you're using "idiomatic." It's using the correct verb form, so it's idiomatic; it's not using an incorrect form that's come to be accepted idiomatically. :-) You just wouldn't use has told there. I think the answer you referred to is more confusing than clarifying and would disregard it. This Wikipedia section is pretty good. If you're in doubt whether to use the simple past or the present perfect in a specific case, as a non-native speaker you're probably best off using the simple past. – T.J. Crowder Jul 16 '18 at 14:48
  • (Here's an example of using the wrong form, but it's come to be accepted idiomatically in some places: You meet someone in the morning and you ask "Did you eat breakfast?" or they say "Yes, I ate breakfast." That's incorrect, it should be "Have you eaten breakfast?" and "Yes, I have eaten breakfast." But the simple past version is acceptable informally in the U.S. But that afternoon [it's no longer morning], the "Did you eat breakfast?" / "Yes, I ate breakfast." form is the correct one.) – T.J. Crowder Jul 16 '18 at 14:51
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    @T.J.Crowder - I don't think "Did you eat breakfast" is wrong per se. It's just asking about a completed past event, which is acceptable even if it's still morning. The past perfect is just more precise. – stangdon Jul 16 '18 at 19:33
45

It is a kind of historic present, and one which is fairly common in conversation when referring to what another person has said.

I was talking to my dad, and he says that you are looking for a gardener.

Well, my wife claims to have seen a UFO.

Martin tells me that you are getting married.

The implication in using the present tense is that "If I were to ask again, he would say the same thing."

For example if I said "My wife claimed to have seen a UFO" it would imply that she has now changed her mind and does not claim this anymore.

Somehow saying "Richard tells me that you're a doctor", invites the other person to respond. Whereas "Richard told me that you're a doctor" doesn't. The second is just a statement of fact. The first is a invite for the person to speak more about being a doctor.

  • 18
    +1 for the invitation to speak nuance when this form is used in conversation. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 15 '18 at 11:32
  • Also, "my wife has claimed to have seen a UFO" would imply that at one point in the past, possibly a long time ago, she claimed this. – OldBunny2800 Jul 16 '18 at 0:41
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    It can also be used in a past context, e.g. "So Martin walks up to this girl and tells her the cheesiest pickup line I've ever heard. She slaps him on the face and ..." This works as long as you're describing a past event in such detail to make it feel real to the person you're telling it to. – Flater Jul 16 '18 at 9:42
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    Is it correct to call this an historic present? As I have understood the term, the historic present is a device employed to give liveliness to a narrative (a history). But as you suggest, this present is used to indicate the past event's relevance for the present and potential repetition. – Toothrot Jul 16 '18 at 19:23
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    I am wondering about this myself. It is the use of the present tense to speak about the past, but it isn't the usual narrative purpose. After some thought, perhaps "a kind of historic present" would be better than "an example of ..." – James K Jul 16 '18 at 19:30
3

It is OK to use the simple present with tells in this locution because native speakers have been saying it for some 400 years. It might be paraphrased "I am told by Richard that ..." or "I understand from speaking with Richard that ..."

The form emphasizes the fact that the speaker is one of Richard's acquaintances, that they have met and are on speaking terms, and that what has been told was told quite recently, so recently that the speaker believes the fact is still "fresh".

One could even use this form at a cocktail party or reception or other occasion that involves chit-chat, after being introduced to someone who tells you about themselves and a little about their spouse or significant other, for example. When that person later joins the conversation you might say:

Richard tells me you're a doctor.

But it doesn't have to be that recent:

The curator tells me the brooch I found when digging in my garden is from the 8th century.

The conversation being referred to might have taken place a year ago or more.

Time-wise it is similar to:

I have had this pain in my knee ever since I stepped into that pothole near the curb in the Main Street crosswalk and wrenched it.
--Really? That was over a year ago. What do the doctors say?

What is the opinion of the doctors? Presumably they have been consulted in this matter, and presumably their opinion has not changed.

  • Note that, although the action of "telling" occurred in the past, using the present implies that the speaker believes that the information is correct in the present. – WhatRoughBeast Jul 15 '18 at 15:01
  • Yes, as I wrote, the speaker believes the fact is still "fresh". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 15 '18 at 17:11
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    Disagree that it has to be in any way whatsoever recent. You could have Herodotus tells us that... prefixing some historical fact (which is well attested usage). – Kevin Jul 16 '18 at 2:13
  • @Kevin: recent is relative, and I explicitly say "But it doesn't have to be that recent". Seems like you're not reading very closely. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 16 '18 at 10:26
  • "What do the doctors say" has the wrong word emphasized. It's in contrast to "What did the doctors say?" (or even "What will the doctors say?"). The word "say" is not inflected differently in these (but is in more convoluted tenses like "What would the doctors have said if you had seen them sooner?") – Monty Harder Jul 16 '18 at 18:09
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The simple present tense indicates a habitual occurrence, and indicates no definite point in time. If one were to say, "He is not a vegetarian, so he eats meat," this does not state that the person ate meat a single time, but implies that the person is willing to eat meat, and possibly has done so many times.

Your example:

Richard tells me you're a doctor.

This suggests that Richard is willing to share that fact, and doesn't limit the number of times he has shared it. It indicates that the information is current (Richard hasn't taken the statement back), and therefore invites Philip to add to the statement.

  • I don't think it suggests any such thing. It may very well be that Richard has only mentioned this once. (That Richard has not since amended the statement is of course assumed.) – Monty Harder Jul 16 '18 at 18:13
  • I'm not entirely sure which part(s) you were referring to, but I do agree that Richard may have only mentioned it once. I modified my answer to make it a little more clear. – Timothy Smith Jul 22 '18 at 3:42

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